A defamation lawsuit brought by a former New York University professor against James Franco has taken a turn toward the epistemological, examining the difference between a provable falsity and a matter of opinion.
In September, Jose Angel Santana took Franco to court after the actor allegedly made "disparaging and inaccurate public statements" against Santana after receiving a "D" in his class in 2010. The plaintiff, once described on NYU's faculty page as being the founder of a Santa Barbara youth center whose focus was to "create a safe place for young people to express themselves without fear of judgment" called Franco "a bully" for comments the actor made in the press about how he was an "awful" teacher.
On Tuesday, NYU -- also a defendant in the lawsuit -- stood up for Franco, asking a New York judge to dismiss Santana's claims.
The school says that the law only protects false statements of fact, not opinions, and NYU believes, "The comments at issue consisted of nothing other than Franco's personal opinions regarding Santana's teaching skills."
The nature of truth vs. opinion has stumped philosophers, art students and others for centuries. Now, a judge is tasked with examining a few of Franco's statements that Santana alleges are libelous.
Here's one example of a statement in controversy: Franco said during an interview that Santana was "awful," adding "I didn’t feel like I needed to waste my time with a bad teacher.”
Both sides have a different reading on this statement.
According to Santana, "Franco's reason(s) for not attending Plaintiff's class is also a fact that can be proven true or false ... Notably, Franco had previously cited his work on the movie 127 Hours as the reason he was unable to attend Plaintiff's class."
But according to NYU, "Franco's description of Santana as 'awful' does not have a precise meaning, nor ... is it capable of being proven true or false."
The school also addresses Franco's other statements -- e.g., "No teacher will ever be fired from NYU for giving a student a D," and "[Santana] wasn't fired [from NYU], he was asked not to come back after three years because they didn't think he was a good teacher."
These statements were "clearly rhetorical hyperbole," says NYU.
Just in case a judge agrees with the art professor's analysis of truth and opinion, NYU also attempts another way to escape the lawsuit -- arguing that it isn't responsible for what Franco said.
"Franco's comments were made in response to a reporter's question during a question-and-answer session in advance of a screening of Franco's new film," says the school. "When considering the forum in which the comments were made, as well as the fact that Franco is a famous actor and director who has many duties and responsibilities outside the scope of his employment as an adjunct professor at NYU, no reasonable person would conclude that the statements were made in the scope of his NYU employment."
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