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US judge unlikely to stop arbitration in Jackson estate v HBO case on free speech grounds

By | Published on Friday 20 September 2019

Michael Jackson

A federal judge in California seems likely to endorse the proposal that a dispute between the Michael Jackson estate and HBO go to arbitration. The broadcaster has been trying to get the whole matter dismissed on free speech grounds.

The estate sued HBO back in February over the media firm’s airing of the documentary ‘Leaving Neverland’, which put the spotlight back on allegations of child abuse made against the late king of pop by Wade Robson and James Safechuck.

The lawsuit centres on a 1992 contract between Jackson and HBO signed when the latter broadcast footage of the former’s live shows. The contract included a clause in which HBO promised to never “disparage” the musician.

As the dispute has progressed, the estate filed a motion seeking to force the matter to arbitration, rather than a proper court hearing. HBO then filed a counter motion seeking to stop that from happening on free speech grounds.

According to Law360, a legal rep for HBO argued that, had the estate really wanted arbitration in its contract dispute with the broadcaster, it should have gone that route from the off, rather than filing a lawsuit. The litigation, the lawyer argued, “was filed to chill free speech and to tell the world, ‘don’t talk about child sex abuse'”.

But judge George H Wu, who is overseeing the case, said this week that he couldn’t find any previous relevant precedent to support the idea that HBO could avoid arbitration on free speech grounds via what is known in US legal circles as an anti-SLAPP motion. He also added that the fact the estate did not initially go the arbitration route didn’t mean they were waiving the right to subsequently pursue that option.

Meanwhile, one of the executors of the estate, John Branca, insisted that its action to date is about “trying to get all the facts out there – HBO doesn’t want that to happen”.

Wu said yesterday that he would issue a final judgement on all this by the end of the month, but it is looking likely he’ll side with the estate at this stage.