The former governor's suit against a late Navy SEAL is watched as it’s an unusual and important First Amendment case testing the definitions of celebrity and defamation.
As a wrestler, he battled Andre the Giant, Hulk Hogan and Mad Dog Vachon. As a candidate for governor, he clashed with Skip Humphrey and Norm Coleman.
This week, however, Jesse Ventura could face his toughest test yet: proving to a federal jury that he was libeled and slandered by a highly decorated former Navy SEAL who is now dead.
Jury selection begins Tuesday in U.S. District Court in St. Paul over a lawsuit the former governor filed two years ago, claiming that the late Chris Kyle, who served in the SEALs, defamed him in a bestselling book, “American Sniper,” by making up a story about a barroom fight in California. Kyle did not identify Ventura in the book but later named him in radio and television interviews.
It’s an unusual and important case testing the definitions of celebrity and defamation.
“This is one of the most important First Amendment cases in recent Minnesota history,” says Mark Anfinson, an attorney who teaches communications law at the University of St. Thomas and specializes in media issues.
The standards for proving defamation are high, Anfinson said. “He’s got to prove not only that the publication was false and harmed his reputation, but he has also got to prove that it was published with actual malice.”
Several settlement conferences have failed, so a 10-person jury will decide the veracity of the alleged bar fight.
“It was completely fabricated; that’s why we are in court,” Ventura said in a brief telephone conversation last week. Ventura is scheduled to testify, along with his wife, Terry, and adult son, Tyrell, according to documents filed by his attorneys, David B. Olsen, Court Anderson and John Bisanz Jr.
Several former SEALs who were at the bar that night are expected to testify they saw no confrontation, nor did they hear Ventura make the derogatory remarks about SEALs and the U.S. military alleged in Kyle’s book.
Kyle was killed in an unrelated incident, so the defendant is his widow, Taya Kyle, who oversees his estate. Two local First Amendment lawyers, John Borger and Leita Walker, are representing Taya Kyle and are expected to call witnesses who will support her husband’s version of events.
The ‘Sniper’ story
Kyle’s book, “American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History,” was published in January 2012 and became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller. He claimed to be the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history, with 160 confirmed kills out of 255 claimed.
The book has been turned into a movie, still in production, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper. It is not known if the film includes the barroom incident; a spokesman for Warner Bros., which is releasing the movie, had no comment.
The lawsuit centers on a subchapter on pages 310 to 312, titled “Punching out Scruff Face” and recounts an alleged incident in 2006 at a bar and restaurant in Coronado, Calif., near San Diego.
Kyle wrote that after attending a funeral for a Navy SEAL, a small party went to one of his favorite bars, where there were numerous people including “a celebrity I’ll call Scruff Face … Scruff served in the military; most people seem to believe he was a SEAL.” (Ventura served on the Navy SEAL underwater demolition team during the Vietnam War.)
Kyle claims he went over to introduce himself and say he wanted the other man to meet a young SEAL who had been injured in the Iraq war, but “Scruff acted like he couldn’t be bothered.
“We went back over to our side of the bar and had a few more drinks,” Kyle wrote. “In the meantime, Scruff started running his mouth about the war. … We were only there because [President] Bush wanted to show up his father. We were doing the wrong thing, killing men and women and children and murdering.
“And so on. Scruff said he hates America and that’s why he moved to Baja, Calif.”