Judge Allows Lawsuit to Proceed Against ‘S-Town’ Podcast Makers
The producers of the 2017 podcast S-Town have lost their bid to dismiss a lawsuit against them filed on behalf of the estate of John McLemore, the protagonist of the series, AL.com reports.
On Friday, U.S. District Judge Scott Coogler ruled against Serial Productions, LLC, the company behind S-Town, which tried to have the lawsuit dismissed on the basis of the First Amendment. McLemore’s estate is demanding profits from the podcast, as well as compensatory damages and a ban on using McLemore’s likeness.
Filed by Craig Cargile, the administrator of McLemore’s estate, the lawsuit essentially argues that the podcast violates the state of Alabama’s right of publicity, which makes it illegal to use someone’s name and image without their consent for up to 55 years after their death.
The estate argues that because McLemore died by suicide in 2015, two years before the podcast premiered, he was not able to consent to certain details about his life being featured in the podcast, including intimate details about his mental health issues and his sex life, the latter of which McLemore had specifically asked producer Brian Reed to keep off the record. McLemore’s estate is demanding profits from the podcast, as well as compensatory damages.
Launched in 2017, S-Town tells the story of McLemore’s relationship with producer Brian Reed, whom he contacts to look into an unsolved murder in his hometown of Woodstock, Alabama. The podcast examines the troubled and charismatic McLemore’s life and death, including his struggles with mental illness and his life as a queer man in a small Southern town, specifically an affair he had with a married man (a detail that McLemore had specifically requested that Reed keep off the record).
When S-Town was released, it became a huge success, and has been downloaded 80 million times since its debut. (It has also been optioned for a film adaptation.) But it also attracted a great deal of criticism, with some commenters arguing that it was “morally indefensible” for its exploitation of its central subject. Those involved with McLemore’s estate, including his mother, agreed, filing suit against the producers of S-Town for airing details about McLemore’s personal life that were not “matters of legitimate public concern, nor were these matters that McLemore contacted Reed to investigate or write about.”
For their part, the producers of S-Town have argued that because the podcast is a work of journalism, it should be “specifically exempted under the Act as a public interest documentary work.” In his decision, Coogler largely ignored this defense, writing that because S-Town ran ads for websites like Squarespace and Blue Apron, it was a commercial product and therefore arguably a violation of Alabama’s right of publicity.
You can read the ruling in full below.