March 18, 2010 -- Now that a Federal Judge has ruled Oprah Winfrey can be sued for defamation of character, plaintiff Nomvuyo Mzamane will have the task of taking on one of the world's most famous women for doing what she does best: sharing her thoughts with the universe.
The suit, slated to begin March 29 in Philadelphia, raises the question of whether a jury can distinguish between Winfrey the public figure, famous for deep chat sessions with guests on her show, and Winfrey the person who may or may not have defamed Mzamane when addressing a sexual abuse scandal at her school in Africa.
"When you think of cases of public people being sued, there aren't that many of them today," Floyd Abrams, a famed First Amendment attorney, said in an interview with ABC News. "That's because the law is generally protective of free speech, and because courts and juries are generally sensitive to the needs of protecting free speech."
In the 128-page opinion published March 15 in Mzamane v. Winfrey, U.S. District Judge Eduardo C. Robreno concluded that statements made by Winfrey at a November 2007 press conference were "capable of defamatory meaning." The judge rejected arguments made by Winfrey's lawyers that the remarks were merely "expressions of opinion."
According to court documents, in 2007 students at the school accused one of the dorm matrons, Virginia Tiny Makgobo, of sexual abuse, prompting Winfrey and the school's executives to call in the authorities to investigate. Six girls have accused Makgobo of sexual abuse. She has pleaded not guilty, and her trial is ongoing.
Following the allegations, Winfrey met with parents of the students, fired Mzamane as head of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy School and held a press conference. Winfrey opened the elite boarding school for high-achieving poor South African girls near Johannesburg in January 2007
Winfrey is quoted in court documents as saying: "I'm going to find a new head of the academy for the school. ... Dorm parents are gone, [Mzamane] is gone," in her meeting with the parents.
According to the judge, that statement suggested Mzamame had a role in the alleged mistreatment of the students which would "clearly blacken plaintiff's reputation or injure her in her profession."
"Plaintiff submits that despite her unblemished record of professional employment, she was unable to obtain a position in the educational field from the time of Winfrey's public comments until August 2008. Furthermore, plaintiff asserts that she suffered personal humiliation and distress as a result of being wrongly associated with the misconduct at OWLAG due to Winfrey's comments," Robreno says.
Winfrey was also quoted saying she "lost confidence" in Mzamane's abilities as the school's headmistress, and that "any person" who had caused harm to any student would not be returning to the school.
"The average listener could interpret Winfrey's statement that she has 'lost confidence' in plaintiff's abilities, in conjunction with the preceding statement that 'any person that has caused harm' to the students would not be returning to OWLAG, to mean that plaintiff was not being retained due to the fact that she played some role in the 'harm' caused to the students," Robreno wrote.
According to a brief filed by Mzamane's lawyers, Winfrey herself acknowledged the power of her words when she said in a deposition she thought only two people -- President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle — wielded more influence in the media.
The court papers also quote Winfrey as saying "my mistake was trusting people, putting them in power, and allowing them to rule without me having daily contact to see what was going on."
"Winfrey's characterization of her decision to delegate authority with respect to the students as a 'mistake' implies the existence of undisclosed facts unearthed during the internal investigation which indicated that the people put in 'power,' i.e., plaintiff, were engaged in wrongdoing," Robreno wrote.
"Winfrey indicted Ms. Mzamane for creating an atmosphere where the students' voices were silenced," Mzamane's lawyers, including Timothy McGowan, said in their brief. "Simply put, the only reasonable inference to be drawn from the press conference was that Ms. Mzamane was let go because, at best, she disregarded claims of sexual abuse at [the school]."
Winfrey's lawyers tried to have the suit dismissed on the grounds that the comments she made were only her opinions. They also tried to move the trial to Chicago, where her show is based. Robreno said it could be tried in Pennsylvania, where Mzamane lived when she filed suit in 2008. Mzamane is seeking more than $250,000 in damages.
"Oprah and Harpo await the opportunity to present the case in court," her lawyer, Chip Babcock of Houston, said in a statement issued this week through Harpo, Winfrey's production company, which is also a defendant in the suit.
Babcock successfully defended Winfrey during her 1998 libel trial in Texas after she was sued over a segment on mad cow disease.
Although the case has been allowed to proceed, Abrams said Mzamane has no easy task ahead of her, but not simply because she is facing off against Winfrey.
"It's true that libel law in America is generally protective of free speech. Plaintiffs have a difficult task in prevailing but not an impossible one," he said.
Winfrey's fame and the media storm the trial will bring aside, Abrams is confident both parties will get a fair trial.
"I think she [Winfrey] can get a fair trial, and I think the plaintiff can get a fair trial even if she is one of the most-admired women in America, because my experience is, juries are pretty good at parsing through to find out what the facts are," Abrams said.