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3rd Cir. Seems Skeptical of Cosby Defamation Claims

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on October 11, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A former teen actress went before the Third Circuit on Friday in an attempt to revive her defamation suit against Bill Cosby. Renita Hill has accused the comedian of drugging and sexually assaulting her when she was a 16-year-old actress on the TV show "Picture Pages."

When Cosby's lawyer denied Hill's accusations, as well as those of scores of other women, she sued, alleging that the denial rose to the level of defamation. A district court tossed that suit last January, but victory in the Third Circuit could revive Hill's claims. Given oral arguments, though, victory is far from assured.

Renita Hill's Cosby Claims

As a teen, Renita Hill was a cast member on "Picture Pages," an educational show aimed at children that Bill Cosby hosted in the 1980s. In 2014, Hill joined a chorus of dozens of women who claimed that Cosby had drugged and sexually assaulted them. In her case, Hill alleged that Cosby would give her alcoholic drinks, despite her being underage, and that she would wake up not remembering what happened, though she recalled him kissing her as she blacked out.

After Hill made her allegations public, Cosby's lawyer, Martin Singer, said her story and the accounts of other women were "fantastical," "ridiculous," "illogical," and "absurd." With lawyers willing to represent anyone "with claims against rich, powerful men," it "makes no sense" that none of the women had not come forward beforehand, Singer said.

Defamation or Free Speech

Hill claimed that Cosby's denial was defamation. "The clear implication" of Singer's statement, Hill's Lawyer George Kontos said during oral arguments, "is that they're making this up and they're looking for money." Kontos also pointed to Singer's statement that "we have refuted these new unsubstantiated stories with documentary evidence," which he said implied that the claims had been disproven.

When Hill brought her defamation claim to district court, the court rejected it, finding that the comments by Cosby and his lawyer were protected by the First Amendment.

Those First Amendment concerns were echoed during oral arguments on Friday. Judge Robert E. Cowen wondered if a lack of denial on Cosby's part could have been later used against him before a jury, the Legal Intelligencer reports. Lawyers need to be able to defend their clients "without getting in trouble with the defamation law," he said.

In addition to Hill's appeal, Cosby is also facing a host of other lawsuits from past alleged victims, including several defamation suits and an upcoming trial over claims that he drugged and sexually assaulted a woman at his home in 2004.

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