Netflix’s original series “When They See Us” was released in May of this year and portrayed the prosecution of five teenagers of color who were wrongfully convicted of raping a white woman in Manhattan’s Central Park in 1989. The series depicts the detectives and police abusing the teens, isolating them from their parents, and subjecting them to continuous hours of questioning without food or bathroom breaks to elicit false confessions. In Part 4 of the series, after the actual culprit came forward, the Manhattan assistant district attorney confronts the lead detective on the case and says in reference to the detective’s interrogation of the teens, “You squeezed statements out of them after 42 hours of questioning and coercing, without food, bathroom breaks, withholding parental supervision… The Reid Technique has been universally rejected. That’s truth to you.”
John E. Reid & Associates, which developed and trademarked The Reid Technique as a means of effectively interviewing, questioning, and interrogating suspects, begs to differ and filed suit against Netflix on Monday for defamation and false light because of these statements. Reid claims its technique does not involve, and rather prohibits, striking or assaulting a suspect, making any promises of leniency, denying a suspect any rights, conducting excessively long interrogations, or denying a suspect any physical needs. Reid adds that its technique urges extreme caution when interviewing juveniles and that the techniques used to interview the teens in “When They See Us” do not represent the Reid method. Reid further takes issue with the allegation that the technique is “universally rejected,” though this statement could be viewed by the court as a matter of opinion and therefore beyond the scope of defamation.
Another open question is whether these statements are comments of and concerning John E. Reid & Associates or its founder, John Reid, as opposed to the product Reid created. If the comments are seen as attacking a product, Reid’s claims may be better suited for a trade libel cause of action, which would require proof of actual damages as opposed to just general harm, and/or a dilution of its trademark by tarnishment under the Lanham Act.
Also of note is that the detective in the episode responds to the statement saying he did not know what technique he used in interrogating the teens, which suggests that the overall context in which the allegedly defamatory statements were made conveys a degree of doubt as to whether the interrogation involved The Reid Technique. Under this view, it would appear that the series took a neutral stance on the technique and crafted the dialogue to allow the viewers to conclude whether the technique was used and/or was responsible for the way the teens were mistreated. Anticipating this argument, Reid argues that the character playing the assistant district attorney and who accuses the detective of employing The Reid Technique is portrayed as intelligent and credible, while the detective is depicted as a bad actor.
Netflix has not publicly commented on the suit but is expected to file an answer sometime next month.