The double-amputee war veteran who’s suing Michael Moore over the way he’s portrayed in “Fahrenheit 911” seems to be depending on a fairly novel legal theory. Politics aside, journalists and filmmakers everywhere should be rooting for Moore.
According to the Boston Globe and Reuters, Peter Damon, who lost both arms in an accident while repairing a helicopter, is alleging only that Moore used an NBC News clip of him being interviewed. As best as I can tell, Damon’s not claiming that Moore distorted that interview in any way. Rather, Damon’s upset because he’s a supporter of President Bush, and Moore incorporated the clip into his notoriously anti-Bush documentary.
“It was kind of almost like the enemy was using me for propaganda,” Damon was quoted as saying. “What soldier wants to be involved in that? I didn’t lose my arms over there to come back and be used as ammunition against my commander-in-chief.”
Now, I haven’t watched “Fahrenheit 911” again to analyze the Damon segment. But I will grant him that Moore may well have given his viewers the mistaken impression that Damon was being critical of Bush. As Reuters reports:
In “Fahrenheit 9/11,” the footage of Damon follows a statement by Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington, who says of the Bush administration: “You know they say they’re not leaving any veterans behind, but they’re leaving all kinds of veterans behind.”
But as long as Damon himself was portrayed accurately, his legal claim ought to be dismissed.
No doubt Moore faced hurdles simply using the NBC News footage. Even though the fair-use doctrine of copyright law clearly allows third parties such as Moore to show excerpts for the purpose of commentary, media corporations have gotten more and more aggressive about protecting their turf. NPR’s “On the Media” recently reported on how difficult it’s become to claim fair use; click here and here for transcripts.
If the subjects of interviews, accurately portrayed, can now sue over contextual complaints such as Damon’s, then the First Amendment would be dealt an enormous blow. Damon has suffered a lot, and it’s a shame that he believes he was used as an unwitting tool. But was Moore supposed to seek Damon’s permission before using the news clip? Ask him what he thought of the president? That’s apparently what Damon and his lawyer believe. I’m sorry, but that’s ridiculous.