Michael Jackson Estate Might Be Violating HBO’s Free Speech Rights In ‘Leaving Neverland’ Case, Says Judge

Michael Jackson announces plans for Summer residency at the O2 Arena at a press conference held at the O2 Arena on March 5, 2009 in London, England.
Tim Whitby / Getty Images

The Michael Jackson estate’s dispute with HBO over the controversial documentary, Leaving Neverland, which covers allegations of sexual abuse against the late singer by Wade Robson and James Safechuck, has taken an interesting turn. Per The Hollywood Reporter, before the case could be sent to arbitration, U.S. District Court Judge George H. Wu ordered both parties — via a court document available on Document Cloud — to deliver a briefing arguing whether forcing HBO into arbitration is a violation of the First Amendment.

Wu authorized HBO to file an anti-SLAPP motion arguing that their First Amendment right is being violated by the Jackson estate by August 15. Once it is submitted, Jackson’s estate will have until the end of the month to reply. On September 16, a hearing will take place to consider the First Amendment concerns raised by both parties.

“While the Court agrees that attempting to enforce an arbitration agreement in a contract that includes a non-disparagement clause through the filing of a lawsuit does not initially suggest the presence of state action, the initiation of the litigation itself can trigger First Amendment concerns,” Wu wrote, which means that ordering someone to arbitration could violate their free speech right.

“It cannot be doubted that Plaintiffs’ arbitration action is seeking to recover damages based upon Defendants’ broadcasting a documentary,” Wu continued. “Whether that fact should have some effect on the Arbitration Motion should be discussed more thoroughly at the hearing.”

Jackson’s estate claims that Leaving Neverland is a violation of a non-disparagement clause in a 1992 contract that HBO signed, which — at one point — gave them the right to air a televised Jackson concert. Jackson’s estate is attempting to settle the dispute via arbitration without a judge. But HBO claims that there is no agreement addressing Leaving Neverland, specifically, and that hasn’t expired.

Per The Inquisitr, Leaving Neverland recently received five Emmy nominations for outstanding directing for a documentary/nonfiction program; outstanding sound mixing for a nonfiction program; outstanding picture editing for a nonfiction program; outstanding sound editing for a nonfiction program; and outstanding documentary or nonfiction special.

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But the controversial documentary has drawn criticism from Jackson’s fans and those close to him, including the King of Pop’s former bodyguard, Matt Fiddes, who is behind the upcoming documentary, Michael Jackson: Chase The Truth. Fiddes claims that the documentary will “ruin” the career of Leaving Neverland director Dan Reed.

Others, such as one of the Jackson estate’s lawyers, John Branca, believe that movie is part of a long line of “racist” smears against the late singer.

“There’s a large segment of the press that doesn’t care whether Michael is innocent or guilty because it’s not controversial enough,” he said, per Variety.