When news recently circulated that Terry Richardson was at the center of yet another sex scandal, it really was not too shocking. After all, he’s been the face of alleged unwanted sexual advances for years. In light of photographer’s recent letter titled “Correcting the Rumors”, which labels the “false accusations” as “libelous tales”, we wonder if he might have a legitimate legal claim against any of his accusers.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Richardson supposedly started acting inappropriately, but a few highlights should be enough to get you up to speed. In 2010, model Rie Rasmussen, upset at Richardson for using her photo alongside the photos of naked underage girls in a book titled “Terryworld”, confronted the photographer and called his work “completely degrading” to women and young girls. “He takes girls who are young, manipulates them to take their clothes off and takes pictures of them they will be ashamed of. They are too afraid to say no because their agency booked them on the job and are too young to stand up for themselves,” Rasmussen said.
Soon after that, former model Jamie Peck wrote about an experience she had at 19 with Richardson. The first time Peck shot with Richardson, it was considerably mild, with one of the strangest things being that she was asked to call him “Uncle Terry”. On the second shoot, good old Uncle Terry suggested making tea with her bloody tampon before getting completely naked and strongly suggesting she touch his “terrifying penis”.
Coco Rocha, during an interview with Fashion magazine, said that she would never work with Richardson again. “I’ve shot with [Terry Richardson], but I didn’t feel comfortable and I won’t do it again.”
Richardson largely remained quiet on the allegations until his letter with The Huffington Post, which serves as an attempt at “correcting these rumors” that are “hate-filled and libelous tales about my professional and personal lives.” In said letter, Richardson talks about consenting adults, sexual imagery always being part of his photography, free will, and that he understands his “more provocative work court controversy”.
And most recently, model Emma Appleton tweeted a screenshot of a Facebook Messenger message dated Sunday, April 20th at 19:30 from “Terry Richardson” which reads “If i can fuck you i will book you in ny for a.shoot for Vogue”. A spokesperson claimed the message was “obviously a fake”. Then, a so-called forensic expert hired by Richardson confirmed that the message was not authentic, which Facebook later agreed with. (So it would seem that in this case, at least, Richardson is not guilty of foul play.)
Now, let’s get to what success the photographer might have if he brought a defamation suit. Defamation is the general term for a legal claim involving injury to one's reputation caused by a false statement of fact and includes both libel (defamation that’s written or fixed) and slander (spoken defamation). The key to a successful defamation suit is that the statement be false. If any of the above statements about Richardson (or those made by other models) are true, then his claim ends there.
However, if, as Richardson claims, he’s done nothing wrong and the salacious claims against him are false, he might have a battle worth fighting. Defamation is governed by state law, so for this article’s sake, let’s assume he’d bring suit in New York. The elements to be proved in a defamation suit in NY are: a false statement; published to a third party without privilege or authorization; with fault amounting to at least negligence; that caused special harm or defamation per se.
As we see it, the third and fourth elements would be points of contention. First, let’s talk about fault. In NY, when the subject of a defamatory statement is a public figure, he or she has to prove that a defendant acted with actual malice, meaning knowing the statement was false or acting with reckless disregard for the statement’s truth or falsity. In Richardson’s case, he would at least be considered a limited purpose public figure, which means he would have to satisfy this higher standard. So, for example, in the case of Appleton, it doesn’t seem likely that she knew the statement was false, but there might be an argument that she acted with reckless disregard – as in, she should have suspected that the message was not actually from Terry Richardson (though we aren’t sure that’s persuasive, given his reputation).
Next, we look at harm. The knee-jerk reaction is definitely to say, what’s one more accusation of sexual impropriety? And we’re right there with you. The fact that these claims no longer evoke a shocked response goes to show you that Richardson’s reputation is pretty low in the minds of many. But, because of the nature of these complaints, it is likely that they would be considered defamatory per se, as statements dealing with sexual misconduct are typically deemed so egregious that they are always considered defamatory. What this means is that it would be assumed that the statements harmed the controversial photographer’s reputation without his need to prove it.
There is something to be said of the adage that there’s strength in numbers. With each new claim that Richardson made the subject of his photography uncomfortable or that he exposed himself, you have to wonder how likely it is that they are all lying or misinterpreting the photographer’s motives. As far as we can tell, Richardson is still getting work, though, so clearly not all believe the accusations. Whether he’d be successful in a legal claim is hard to say, but we do think a lawsuit could be great for us outsiders (as in, those not present at his photo shoots). A legal battle might be the only hope for definitive evidence showing Richardson as either a provocative artist pushing boundaries or as truly disgusting.
JENNIFER WILLIAMS is a recent law school graduate who writes about fashion, the legal avenues available for protecting it, and the ways in which the laws are falling short. For more from Jennifer, follow her on Twitter.