By Timothy Geigner
When we last talked about the Geo Group, a company making hundreds of millions of dollars running private prisons, one of its executives was attempting to improve the company’s reputation by constantly removing all the dirty from the Wikipedia page about the company. In trying to do this, of course, the company actually amplified the controversies listed on Wikipedia and, having been caught trying to scrub the internet of its own sins, found itself in headlines as a result. At present, the Wikipedia page still lists those controversies, but more on that in a moment.
Because the latest bit of news from Geo Group is that it is suing Netflix over the use of its logo in a fictional prison in Messiah.
The GEO Group, which operates private prisons and detention centers, filed a lawsuit on Wednesday alleging that it had been defamed in two episodes of the Netflix series “Messiah.”
The series depicts a mysterious figure who gains a following by performing miracles in the desert. In the third and fourth episodes, the character is detained at an immigration facility in Texas, which is identified with GEO Group logos.
The suit claims that the show depicts the facility in a defamatory light. The inmates do not have beds, are kept in overcrowded conditions and surrounded by chain-link fences.
In addition to the claim of defamation, the suit also claims that the Netflix shows use of Geo Group’s logos in two of its episodes constitutes trademark infringement. If all of this seems somewhat familiar, it’s because it’s quite similar to the spat between the infamous Pinkerton Consluting & Investigations company and Take Two Interactive over the latter’s Red Dead Redemption 2 game, which portrayed the Pinkertons fictionally in a way that jives with its historical reputation. While in that case the lawsuit was filed by the content producer seeking declaratory judgement that its use of all names and trademarks was protected free speech, it’s still the case that Pinkerton ran away from its threats. I would imagine Geo Group will need to do so as well, as this sort of fictional representation is indeed protected on First Amendment grounds.
As for the defamation claim, well, we’re back to those controversies from the Wikipedia page. Those list overcrowding of its prisons, poor conditions that led to multiple prison riots, and specifically some claims of poor conditions for immigrants awaiting deportation. You know, basically the sort of portrayal the suit itself alleges in Messiah.
“Unlike in ‘Messiah,’ GEO does not house people in overcrowded rooms with chainlink cages at its Facilities, but provides beds, bedding, air conditioning, indoor and outdoor recreational spaces, soccer fields, classrooms, libraries, and other amenities that rebut ‘Messiah”s defamatory falsehoods,” the complaint states.
The suit includes colorful photographs of libraries, classrooms and recreation facilities at GEO detention centers.
Except that it has a reputation for all of the issues above, no matter how many pretty pictures the company includes in its filing. And trademark and defamation laws, whatever teeth they might have, can’t pierce the First Amendment’s protections on artistic representation in a work of fiction.
Netflix tends to be fairly good about fighting back on these sorts of things. Hopefully they’ll do so in this case as well.