Cayuga Defamation Case Vs. Showtime Network’s Billions: Dismissal Upheld

New York State’s Cayuga Nation cannot bring a defamation case against the Showtime network and the writers and producers of hit show Billions, an appellate court has ruled.

Cayuga
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“Jane Halftown” of the “Cayuga Iroquois,” played by Tanis Parenteau (right), with Paul Giamatti in the episode of Billions that caused offense. (Image: Showtime Network)

The Nation and its tribal chair, Clint Halftown, sued in August 2019 after an episode of Billions depicted a tribe called the “Cayuga Iroquois,” whose members participated in shady casino deals.

There was even a character called “Jane Halftown,” who is depicted bribing a public official.

The lawsuit claimed the show created a “false and defamatory narrative” that the tribe was an “irresponsible, corruptible, and even criminal” casino owner.

Can’t Libel a Nation

In July 2020, the New York State Supreme Court dismissed the defamation case. The court ruled the Nation could not sue for defamation because it was a sovereign nation.

Meanwhile, Halftown did not have a case as an individual because similarities were superficial and “insufficient to establish that Jane’s character represents Mr. Halftown.”

In upholding that decision, the appellate panel agreed that a governmental entity cannot maintain a libel claim. It also noted that First Amendment principles are applicable to cases involving libel claims arising from fictional works of entertainment.

“The claims asserted by plaintiff Halftown were also correctly dismissed,” wrote the appellate panel. 

[The] Supreme Court correctly found that the allegedly defamatory matter in the episode was not ‘of and concerning’ Halftown, that is, the fictional character Jane Halftown was not so closely akin to plaintiff that a viewer would have no difficulty linking the two.

Casino Bid Fails

The Cayuga Nation does not operate full-blown Class III casinos. Its gaming operations are limited to a Class II electronic bingo facility in Union Springs under the Lakeside Entertainment brand.

But the Nation has ambitions. It applied to the US Interior Department (DOI) in 2005 to have land taken into trust, which would eventually enable it to offer full-scale casino gaming.

The lawsuit argued the Billions portrayal could have prejudiced its application with the DOI, which was rejected last year after 15 years.

In fact, what really prejudiced its application with the DOI was Halftown’s decision in February 2020 to bulldoze into oblivion a working day care center, a schoolhouse, and a store controlled by a rival tribal faction that disputed the validity of his leadership.

“The destruction of property – including a day care and schoolhouse – and significant acts of public violence are serious matters, and they weaken the trust that the Nation’s government can operate at this time in a harmonious manner with the other governments and law enforcement officers that share the same geography as the Nation’s reservation,” wrote the DOI’s Bureau of Indian Affairs in dismissing the application.

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