A woman who was derided for being a “Karen” recently saw a federal appellate court affirm the dismissal of her defamation claim. According to the Urban Dictionary, a “Karen” is “a middle aged woman who makes solutions to others’ problems an inconvenience to her although she isn’t even remotely affected.”
In May 2020, a woman named Amy Cooper encountered Christian Cooper (no relation), a Black man in Central Park, while she was walking her dog and he was birdwatching. According to Ms. Cooper, Christian Cooper confronted her, and his “intentionally aggressive actions” caused her to “fear for her safety and the safety of her dog.” Ms. Cooper contends this fear caused her to warn Mr. Cooper that she would tell the police there was “an African-American man threatening [her] life,” and then to place a 911 call to that effect.
The confrontation, which was recorded on a video that went viral, became international news. Ms. Cooper contends she was “characterized as a privileged white female ‘Karen’ caught on video verbally abusing an African American male for no possible reason other than the color of his skin.”
Later that same day, Franklin Templeton (Ms. Cooper’s employer) published the following statement on Twitter regarding the incident: “We take these matters very seriously, and we do not condone racism of any kind. While we are in the process of investigating the situation, the employee involved has been put on administrative leave.”
The following afternoon, Franklin Templeton put out another statement on Twitter: “Following our internal review of the incident in Central Park yesterday, we have made the decision to terminate the employee involved, effective immediately. We do not tolerate racism of any kind at Franklin Templeton.”
Jenny Johnson, Franklin Templeton’s president and CEO, made two further public statements about the incident. In a June 2, 2020 interview with Bloomberg, in response to questions about Plaintiff’s termination, Johnson stated: I just have to comment [ ] our crisis management team, it was a holiday. Everybody got together. We needed to spend time getting the facts. Sometimes videos can get manipulated and so you have to make sure that you’ve reviewed all the facts. I think the facts were undisputed in this case, and we were able to make a quick decision. And in a July 6, 2020 interview with Fortune, Johnson stated: “[Defendants] espouse zero tolerance for racism.”
Ms. Cooper filed a federal lawsuit against Franklin Templeton and Johnson, alleging that the statements made by the company and Johnson defamed him by falsely portraying him as a racist. The New York-based federal court applied the law of New York to the facts of the case. Under New York law, it is up to the court to decide whether the statement is defamatory and whether the statement was factual or opinion. In this case, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants and the appellate court confirmed.
Ms. Cooper’s main problem was that characterizing her as a racist, based on the viral video, is a classic opinion. First, it is an observation based on undisputed facts – Ms. Cooper got into a verbal altercation with a Black man. One observer may see that as evidence of racism, while another may find it a reasonable response to the situation. Both views constitute opinions.
Second, how would Ms. Cooper proves the statement false? In reaching its decision, the court relied on precedent that has held terms like “racist” aren’t actionable because of the “tremendous imprecision of the meaning and usage of these terms in the realm of political debate.”
The case may not make Karens happy, but it does give some comfort to employers dealing with embarrassing incidents brought about by their employees.
Jack Greiner is a partner at Faruki PLL law firm in Cincinnati. He represents Enquirer Media in First Amendment and media issues
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Amy Cooper lost case over Central Park birdwatching confrontation