April Sellers’ dancing and choreography career was taking off. The Minneapolis artist was receiving accolades left and right, winning grants for her innovative work and preparing a national tour for her dance company.
And then from out of the blue came a public attack from a New York City couple who saw a Facebook post that disparaged them from a woman named … April Sellers.
The couple responded with a vehement “open letter” e-mail to the Twin Cities arts community and media, branding Sellers a racist.
It sent her career into a tailspin. She stopped working because of the emotional stress. Performance opportunities stalled. Revenue to pay artists dried up.
After a year of turmoil, she finally decided to sue to clear her name. A Hennepin County jury found in favor of Sellers two weeks ago after a trial of five days, awarding her a judgment of $210,000. It had taken jurors less than three hours to confirm that the Sellers behind the Facebook attack actually lived in Cleveland.
The suit was never about the money, Sellers said. She said she needed to win in court to regain her credibility in a tightknit community where trust is the highest currency.
“I needed the judgment to free my voice,” said Sellers. “I wanted a way to get to the truth and recover.”
Baffled by public attack
Sellers’ nightmare began on Oct. 27, 2017, when Kevin Powell and his wife, Jinah Parker, saw the Facebook post and received the e-mail from April Sellers. Powell, a former senior writer for Vibe magazine, was a cast member in the first season of the popular MTV show “The Real World” and a three-time candidate for Congress from New York. Parker is a professional dancer and choreographer.
The Facebook post referred to Powell’s admitted history of violence against women, according to the suit Sellers filed in September. The post also said it was hypocritical for Parker to produce a dance production that addressed sexual violence against women.
In response, the couple launched a campaign against the Minneapolis Sellers, declaring her messages “hateful, racist, sexist, mean-spirited, disrespectful, and so much more.”
The couple wrote a 1,200-word “open letter” that falsely accused Sellers of interfering with their marriage and dance production and also accused her of using a false identity to spread rumors. They e-mailed the letter to dozens of Twin Cities journalists, artists and arts group employees, including the Star Tribune, Minnesota Public Radio, Walker Art Center and the Minnesota State Arts Board, Sellers said.
The couple, speaking to Sellers in the e-mail, said they were “sharing this response widely, across various communities in Minnesota and nationally because we feel people like you are dangerous to yourself and to others.”
In her suit against the couple, Sellers accused them of limiting their investigation into her identity to a search of Google and social media. April Sellers of Minneapolis is 43, while her namesake in Cleveland is 51. They have different middle names.
Sellers, who had no idea who Powell and Parker were, was shocked by their e-mail. Within a couple hours, she responded via e-mail that they had the wrong person and posted on Facebook that she hadn’t written the offending e-mail to them.
Sellers also sent another e-mail to the couple asking for the list of those they had contacted. She never got a response.
Before Powell and Parker sent out the e-mail, Sellers’ career was reaching its peak. She had created 60 original works, been awarded several residencies and was named one of City Pages’ Artists of the Year in 2017. She had just finished mentorship programs in Seattle and New York City to prepare for her national tour.
Her partner had gone to get groceries and Sellers was alone when she saw the e-mail. She said she was overcome with terror and fear, knowing the impact that it could have on her future.
“I was scared for my safety because they had done research and put personal information in the e-mail,” Sellers said. “I felt like my life was over.”
The impact hit her when Star Tribune theater critic Rohan Preston ran into her at a restaurant and asked about it. Preston testified during the trial about how such an e-mail could be a career killer.
Whenever Sellers attended an event in the following weeks, she would often leave at intermission so she wouldn’t have to talk to anybody. She was mortified by the number of people who had received the e-mail from Powell and Parker.
“I extend myself to artists, funders and educators, and I ask them to trust me in vulnerable places,” she said. “With dancers it’s their bodies and identities, funders with their money, and schools with their children. As an artist, our currency is the opportunity to work hard every day.”
Her anxiety made her stay away from her studio, the April Sellers Dance Collective, for six months — her longest stretch of inactivity in nearly a decade. While the e-mail wasn’t ever given as a specific reason, she is sure she was rejected for grants because of it.
Damage to her reputation
Sellers decided the only way to clear her name was with a defamation suit against Powell and Parker. She testified for six hours during the trial. It wasn’t until then that she learned more than a dozen people had initially received the e-mail, with many more likely being copied on it.
Aaron Scott, Sellers’ attorney, said her testimony was powerful and that everyone in the courtroom was exhausted afterward. It was clear the defendants weren’t going to own up to their mistake, he said, “so she needed to win and proclaim it as loudly possible to show she didn’t post the message.”
“Powell never apologized, but just said he regretted what happened,” Scott said. “They picked the wrong person to accuse. She’s a strong person and wasn’t discouraged by this refusal to take responsibility.” He added that they proved the value of an artist’s reputation, which the jury recognized.
Defamation cases are difficult to win because it has to be proven that the communication was a false statement and harmful to the person’s reputation, said Scott. It must also be shown that the defamation hurt the plaintiff’s reputation and caused her emotional stress and humiliation, he said.
In Sellers’ case, the jury saw that Powell and Parker were calculated in spreading a message to key people and institutions that could damage her standing in the arts community, Scott said. He added that social media may help increase the number of defamation cases because it gives people several ways to broadcast defamatory content to a wide audience.
Lee Hutton, a Minneapolis attorney who represented Powell and Parker, said the jury listened attentively and did its job. He said the case was difficult to prepare for because it took only five weeks before the trial began. But he claimed something of a victory since Sellers had sought more than $500,000 in damages and was awarded about 40 percent of that amount.
Plaintiffs in defamation suits start out with a significant head start because it’s presumed there were damages to the defendant, he said. With social media, it’s much easier to potentially defame a person, Hutton said.
“Even in this case, do we define the word ‘racist’ as defamatory?” he asked.
Sellers now is finally getting back into her studio. The whole ordeal is serving as fuel for her next body of work, she said.
“The seeds of many of my dances are rooted in feminism and giving voice to women,” she said. “This was a big time for my voice not to be heard. I have more work to do as an artist.”