An appeals court on Thursday rejected a $95 million defamation lawsuit against Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen filed by former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who said he was tricked into a television appearance that lampooned sexual misconduct accusations against him.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan, upholding a lower court’s ruling in favor of Baron Cohen, said Moore signed a disclosure agreement that prohibited any legal claims over the appearance.
The three judges also found it was “clearly comedy” when Baron Cohen demonstrated a so-called pedophile detector that beeped when it got near Moore and no viewer would think the comedian was making factual allegations against Moore.
The lawsuit centered on Moore’s unwitting appearance on the comic’s “Who is America?” show. The segment ran after Moore faced misconduct accusations during Alabama's 2017 U.S. Senate race that he had pursued sexual and romantic relationships with teens when he was a man in his 30s. He denied the allegations.
Moore, a Republican known for his hardline stances opposing same-sex marriage and supporting the public display of Ten Commandments, had been told he was receiving an award for supporting Israel. But in the segment, Baron Cohen appeared as faux counterterrorism instructor “Col. Erran Morad” discussing bogus military technology, including the supposed pedophile detector. The fake device beeped repeatedly as it got near Moore, who sat stone-faced.
“Baron Cohen may have implied (despite his in-character disclaimers of any belief that Judge Moore was a pedophile) that he believed Judge Moore’s accusers, but he did not imply the existence of any independent factual basis for that belief besides the obviously farcical pedophile detecting ‘device,’ which no reasonable person could believe to be an actual, functioning piece of technology,” the court wrote in the unsigned summary order.
Moore and his wife, Kayla, sued, arguing that the segment defamed Moore and caused them emotional distress. The couple claimed the waiver Moore signed was unenforceable because it was obtained under a false representation. The appellate court noted that it was indeed a ruse that got Moore to appear on the show, but Moore signed a binding release waiving all legal claims.
The accusations against Moore contributed to his loss to Democrat Doug Jones, the first Democrat to represent Alabama in the Senate in a quarter-century. The seat returned to Republican control when Jones lost the following election to Sen. Tommy Tuberville, a former college football coach.
Baron Cohen has for years lured unwitting politicians into awkward interviews. He has faced past lawsuits over similar pranks, but those were also tossed out because the individuals had signed releases.
Moore and his wife indicated they will appeal.
"For far too long the American people have been subjected to the antics of Sasha Baron Cohen. His pusillanimous and fraudulent conduct must be stopped. We will appeal," the couple said in a statement texted to The Associated Press.
Story by Kim Chandler, Associated Press