When money is more important than morality, many will be harmed.
Netflix produced a show, Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, that chronicled the killings of Jeffrey Dahmer. Netflix may have gone wrong in many, many ways. To begin with, Netflix put this show in the LGBTQIA+ category. This understandably incited the queer community when the LGBTQIA+ category is reserved for film that focuses on queer issues, and queer perspectives. Though Jeffrey Dahmer was a gay man, the documentary is not about his homosexuality. Instead, it’s about his gruesome killings. As if Netflix couldn’t possibly be more insensitive, they made this show without consulting Jeffrey’s surviving family members, or the families of the victims. In fact, not only did Netflix neglect to ask permission, they neglected to even tell the family members that such a production was even in the works. Sadly, the victims’ families found out about the production on the same day everyone else did: the day it launched. Now, Jeffrey Dahmer’s father is looking into a lawsuit, begging the question: can Netflix be sued over this series?
At the time of writing this, Dahmer’s father has not filed a lawsuit against Netflix. Though he’s mentioned that he’d like to sue over his portrayal, he has not said what exactly he’d like to sue for. My best guess is that he’d be claiming defamation. Defamation occurs when a person or entity, whether verbally or in writing, damages the reputation of another person. In order to have a claim for defamation, the verbal or written claims must be false. For example, Alex Jones defamed the families of the Sandy Hook victims when he publicly claimed that the horrific shooting never happened. Defamation does not conflict with freedom of speech. You will not go to jail for defaming another person. However, if you defame someone, you may be ordered to financially compensate the defamed party for the damage you’ve done to their reputation. If you make claims that your coworker is stealing from the company—when your coworker isn’t—and your coworker loses their job and cannot get another job since they have a reputation of being a thief, you may be ordered to compensate them for their loss of income and other damages. And here’s where things get tricky: it doesn’t matter if you knew the statements were false or not. If you make false statements that damage the reputation of another person, you may be liable for those damages, even if you thought you were telling the truth.
Can the Victims’ Families Sue?
Unfortunately, it may be a long stretch for the families of the victims to sue Netflix for defamation. Even if Netflix inaccurately portrayed the victims, the surviving family members would not likely have standing. In the most simple terms, you can think of “standing” as the right to file a lawsuit. It could be argued that the families do not have standing because the defamed individual, the victim, is no longer living. Some may be wondering then, whether or not the families would have a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress. Negligent infliction of emotional distress occurs when a person or entity conducts themselves in a manner that demonstrates a reckless disregard for the potential of causing emotional damages to others. A family member could allege that Netflix knew or reasonably should have known that this documentary would emotionally distress the families of the victims. Yet they proceeded to make it anyway, without giving any warning to the victims whatsoever. Unfortunately, the families may not have a claim. I’ll explain why below.
Does Netflix Have the Right to Do This?
If faced with lawsuits, Netflix would likely argue that their right to produce and broadcast this presentation is protected by the First Amendment. According to the Burstyn v. Wilson decision, film is protected by freedom of speech. Because of this, suing Netflix for making anything is going to be a little more challenging. Also, Netflix’s series may specifically be protected by freedom of press. The gruesome killings of seventeen men are undoubtedly a matter of public interest. And Netflix is free to report on matters of public interest, even if those matters are extremely disturbing to others. Unfortunately, though Netflix may have acted callously, and though they emotionally damaged the victims’ families for financial gain, it may be difficult to sue them.
Regarding Jeffrey’s father, it may be difficult for him to sue Netflix, especially for a defamation claim. For starters, the reputation of Jeffrey’s father is already damaged due to being the parent of and having raised a serial murderer. Lionel Dahmer would have to prove that Netflix’s portrayal of him was inaccurate and caused additional damage to his reputation. This may be a high bar for Lionel’s legal team to reach. Though the victims’ families have not filed a claim, I think it would be very difficult for them to prevail in a claim against Netflix. In order to win a defamation claim on behalf of their loved ones, they’d have to prove that they, the surviving family members, have standing. And, even though Netflix’s production caused them emotional pain, Netflix’s actions are likely covered by the First Amendment.
Perhaps the darkest part of this scandal is that people have begun to romanticize a serial killer. We cannot allow this to happen. Though the film version of Dahmer is played by an attractive and talented man, it’s important to remember that the real Jeffrey Dahmer was incredibly disturbed, psychiatrically. Jeffrey Dahmer was a murderer who killed at least seventeen men. These men have stories of their own. The end of their lives was likely violent, gruesome, and terrifying. It should never have been made into a spectacle, and victims’ families should not have been forced to be re-traumatized by graphic reenactments made strictly for profit. The victims were Steven Mark Hicks, Steven Walter Tuomi, James Edward Doxtator, Richard Guerrero, Anthony Lee Sears, Raymond Lamont Smith, Edward Warren Smith, Ernest Marquez Miller, David Courtney Thomas, Curtis Durrell Straughter, Errol Lindsey, Tony Anthony Hughes, Konerak Sinthasomphone, Matt Cleveland Turner, Jeremiah Benjamin Weinberger, Oliver Joseph Lacy, and Joseph Arthur Bradehoft. The names listed are human beings whose lives have been prematurely ended by Jeffrey Dahmer. There is no reason to romanticize such atrocities.