“There’s Nona Gaprindashvili, but she’s the female world champion and has never faced men.”
— ‘The Queen’s Gambit,’ Netflix
“They were trying to do this fictional character who was blazing the trail for other women, when in reality I had already blazed the trail and inspired generations.”
— Nona Gaprindaschvili
There’s little question that Netflix check-mated the competition with their 2020 miniseries ‘The Queen’s Gambit.’ Based on Walter Tevis’ nearly 30-year-old novel and directed by Scott Frank, the series won eleven Primetime Emmys, two Golden Globes, and a Screen Actors Guild award for Anya Taylor-Joy.
But now, real-life female chess champ Nona Gaprindaschvili has filed suit in a Los Angeles court seeking $5 million for a single line in the program that she claims is slanderous and defamatory. The line, quoted above, insinuates that she never faced male opponents when, in fact, she had faced and beaten dozens of men in chess matches, including one match in which she defeated 28 men simultaneously.
Suits like this are often brought with the dual purpose of not only achieving a financial repayment, but also bringing public attention to the slight, and correcting the public misconception. But Ms. Gaprindaschvili will have a high burden to achieve because the law in the United States makes it difficult for public figures to succeed in libel and slander cases.
The landmark Supreme Court case in this area is New York Times v. Sullivan, which arose out of a full page advertisement that the paper agreed to run on March 29, 1960. The advertisement had been paid for by a group known as the “Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South.” The advertisement asked for contributions toward a defense fund for King, who was facing a criminal charge in Alabama. It was signed by a number of prominent actors and public figures, including Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., Eartha Kitt, Sidney Poitier, Jackie Robinson and Eleanor Roosevelt.
The lawsuit arose because the advertisement got some of its facts wrong when it described the protests and subsequent arrests. Of greatest importance to the civil case was a statement that King had been arrested by Alabama police officers on seven different occasions. In fact, he had, at that point, been arrested only four times.
The law in the state of Alabama in 1960 provided that a public official could only recover in a libel or slander lawsuit if they first demanded that the publication retract their statement. Although the advertisement mentioned no Alabama officials by name, the public safety commissioner of Montgomery at that time, L.B. Sullivan, sent a demand to the Times for them to retract the advertisement. The Times refused.
Sullivan then sued the newspaper for libel in state court in Alabama. The paper subsequently received a second demand for a retraction from the governor of Alabama, and the paper actually did publish a correction of the misstated facts following the Ggovernor’s demand. Sullivan won a $500,000 judgment against the Times and four individuals on the committee.
The Times appealed, and the case eventually reached the United States Supreme Court. The court’s decision was unanimous and in favor of the Times. It created a standard for libel and slander of public figures that is very different from that of many European nations. The standard it created is sometimes referred to as the “Actual Malice” rule. In order for a public figure to prevail against anyone for allegedly libelous statements, the public figure must prove that source of the statements either had actual knowledge that the information was false, or that it recklessly disregarded the truth.
Three justices — Black, Goldberg and Douglas — wrote separate concurrences in which they said that they would have prohibited libel actions by public officials in all cases, even those in which the person knew the statement was false. They felt that the First Amendment provided an “absolute, unconditional’ right of speech. Though the court clarified in 1974 that the actual malice standard did not apply in cases brought by private persons, Sullivan remains the law of the land in actions brought by public figures.
Subsequent cases have fleshed out just who qualifies as a “public figure,” depending on their position and employment. Public figures aren’t just politicians, but also athletes, business leaders, actors, musicians and those who attract public attention — people such as Nona Gaprindaschvili.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, where he has served as magistrate, court administrator, and now judge, since 2003. He has written a weekly column on law and history for The Gazette since 2005.