NPR logo Oprah Must Face Defamation Claim Over South Africa School Scandal


Oprah Must Face Defamation Claim Over South Africa School Scandal

Oprah Winfrey at the January 2007 opening of her school in Johannesburg for poor South African girls. AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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AFP/Getty Images

Oprah Winfrey at the January 2007 opening of her school in Johannesburg for poor South African girls.

AFP/Getty Images

In a mixed opinion, a federal judge in Philadelphia ruled that entertainment mogul Oprah Winfrey must face a defamation claim filed by the former headmistress of the South African school for girls the television superstar founded.

Winfrey had sought the dismissal of the entire lawsuit which grew out of negative comments Winfrey made about Lerato Nomvuyo Mzamane, the former headmistess of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls following accusations that an employee of the school, a "dorm parent," had sexually abused some of its students.

U.S. District Judge Eduardo C. Robreno ruled that the case should be given a jury trial in Pennsylvania state court largely because the former headmistress resided there. There was a dispute over where the case should be heard. Mzamane wanted Pennsylvania while Winfrey wanted an Illinois court.

The judge also ruled that after an analysis of relevant Pennsylvania case law, Winfrey's statements could have a "defamatory meaning" and that the case should therefore proceed to trial.

Robreno wrote:

The Court further concludes that under Pennsylvania law
certain of the statements made by Winfrey at a meeting with
parents of OWLAG students in October 2007 and at a news
conference in November 2007, are capable of defamatory meaning
and "of and concerning" Plaintiff, that under First Amendment law
Plaintiff is a limited public figure, but that if believed by the
jury, Plaintiff has pointed to sufficient evidence in the record
to satisfy the clear and convincing evidence standard for actual
malice. Accordingly, Plaintiff's claims for defamation and false
light will proceed to the jury, however, judgment will be entered
in Defendants' favor as to Plaintiff's claims for intentional
infliction of emotional distress.

At issue are statements Winfrey made at an Oct. 2007 meeting Winfrey had with the parents of school students as well as a later press teleconference. Robreno's ruling presents some of those statements this way:

And I said to the girls that any person that has caused
harm to any of them will no longer be allowed to work at this
school. And thus far, we have removed all of the dorm parents.
I've spoken to [Plaintiff] and I said to [Plaintiff] that I don't
know what she knows because the investigation is continuing. I
don't know what she knows, or knew, or didn't know, but that I
have lost confidence in her ability to run this school. And
therefore, she will not be returning to this school.

What happened here with the leadership is that the
parents were shut out, the children were shut out, the teachers
were shut out, and only - the only authority came from the dorm
parents. The dorm parents were allowed to rule and given power
over the girls. I cant' I can't I can't even explain how that
could happen. I don't know how it happened. I spoke to
[Plaintiff] the other day and I told her that I didn't think that
it would be wise for her to continue at the school. I said, but
just please tell me this one thing. How is it that these dorm
parents were given such power and authority over the girls? With
no checks and balances? Nobody to check on them. And she said
you don't understand. There were checks and balances. And I
don't see where they were.

I'm going to find a new head of the academy for the
school. I'm going to involve the parents, and involve the girls
themselves in creating the discipline process because as I've
said to them: dorm parents are gone, [Plaintiff] is gone.

The court ruled for Winfrey however, dismissing Mzamane's accusation the entertainment megastar of "intentional infliction of emotional distress."