Rutgers Basketball Player Sues Imus

Kia Vaughn, one of the Rutgers basketball players shock jock Don Imus referred to as a “nappy headed ho,” is suing him for defamation.

Don Imus is facing his first lawsuit from a player on the Rutgers Women’s Basketball team for derogatory comments that cost him his job as a radio host in April, ABC News has learned. Kia Vaughn, star center for the Rutgers Women’s Basketball team, has filed a lawsuit against Imus for libel, slander and defamation — the first civil suit to be filed against the former radio host. Vaughn is asking for monetary damages of an unspecified amount. “This is a lawsuit in order to restore the good name and reputation of my client, Kia Vaughn,” said her attorney, Richard Ancowitz, in an exclusive interview with the ABC News Law & Justice Unit.

The suit names Imus individually, but it is also waged against MSNBC, NBC Universal, CBS Radio, CBS Corp., Viacom Inc., Westwood One Radio and Imus producer Bernard McGuirk.

Today’s suit refers to terms used by Imus April 4 — including referring to women on the team as “nappy headed” — as “debasing, demeaning, humiliating, and denigrating” to Vaughn and her fellow players. “There’s no way these bigoted remarks should have seen the light of day,” Ancowitz told ABC News. “Don Imus referred to my client as an unchaste woman. That was and is a lie.”

This suit would appear absurd on its face. First, Imus never mentioned the woman by name. Second, and more importantly, his remarks were rather clearly a bad joke rather than an assertion about the women’s sex lives. No reasonable person would have taken away, in the context of Imus’ remarks, that those he called “nappy headed hos” were actually prostitutes.

The word “ho” became part of the vernacular via rap music, black comedians, and the like but has become so mainstream that it has lost it’s original meaning. Apparently, though, the law has not caught up to that fact.

Robert Baker, a civil trial lawyer in California, says the high visibility of Imus’ comments would help Vaughn in court. “Everyone knows how unwarranted those comments were. It makes it easier for them to win their case,” Baker told ABC News. “She has a slander per se case — the word itself was something derogatory. She doesn’t even have to prove that she was damaged.”

The fact that Imus has settled with CBS over his firing and is now free to pursue a return to the airwaves factored in to the decision as well. Ancowitz said, “”He’s come out smelling like quite the rose. But what about these young women? How does Imus’ victory affect their self-esteem? Where do they go to get their reputations back?”

Please. Nobody had ever heard of these women. Thanks to Imus’ loutish comments and the ensuing publicity swarm, they became minor celebrities. The coverage was overwhelmingly positive, pointing out how articulate and nice they were. However hurt they may have been by the comments made by some old white guy on a show they likely never heard of, their reputations were enhanced, not damaged, by the controversy.

UPDATE: Comments arguing that Imus’ original comments were somehow accurate will be summarily deleted.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Race and Politics, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. markm says:

    I know absolutely nothing about the legalities of this….but it looks like somebody has a case of the wallet sniffs.

  2. garyg says:

    This is unbelievable. They already had this man pulled from the airwaves and made his life a living heck so why the need to sue him? He has apologized to these ladies and paid a heavy price for what he did in bad humor.

    Portion of comment in violation of site policies deleted.

  3. Bandit says:

    I question the timing – well I really don’t question it –

  4. JohnInFlorida says:

    Ask 10,000 people outside of her college town who Kia Vaughn is and you will not get one correct answer. Ask me and I will tell you she is a loser who sees easy money. Portion of comment in violation of site policies deleted.

  5. floyd says:

    Anybody seen a WAMU commercial? Class action lawsuit anybody?
    Defamation is endemic in our society against one segment. Where’s the outrage?

  6. Beldar says:

    From Bolling v. Baker, 671 S.W.2d 559, 569-70 (Tex. App. — San Antonio 1984) (case citations omitted), not because Texas law applies to these folks, but because it’s the first case I laid hands on (took me about 30 seconds), and because it correctly cites the common law of defamation that has been applicable throughout the United States for decades:

    The common law of defamation traditionally has allowed recovery of purportedly compensatory damages without evidence of actual loss. If the statement is “slanderous per se,” the existence of some damage is presumed without proof that it has actually been sustained. Otherwise stated, proof of the defamation itself is considered to establish the existence of some damages, and the jury is permitted, without other evidence, to estimate their amount. Slander, to be actionable without proof of damage, has fallen into four categories: the imputation of a crime, of a loathsome disease, those affecting the plaintiff in his business, trade, profession, office or calling, and the imputation of unchastity to a woman. See W. Prosser, Law of Torts § 112 (4th ed. 1971).

    Newer cases tend to refer to “sexual impropriety” rather than “unchastity,” and have applied that category to both men and women.

    I give you this block quote to help you prepare for our conversation about this case tonight, Dr. Joyner! Forewarned is forearmed.

  7. James Joyner says:

    Beldar: Thanks for the cite.

    I understand, in theory, why the law evolved this way. I’d just argue that sexual morality and our language, for good or ill, have evolved radically and the concept of damage has to move with it.

  8. Grewgills says:

    The word “ho” became part of the vernacular via rap music, black comedians, and the like but has become so mainstream that it has lost it’s original meaning. Apparently, though, the law has not caught up to that fact.

    It may no longer be taken to literally mean a prostitute but it is still and insult generally taken to mean a gold digging slut.
    Honestly how would you react if someone called a woman you cared about a ho?

  9. James Joyner says:

    It may no longer be taken to literally mean a prostitute but it is still and insult generally taken to mean a gold digging slut.
    Honestly how would you react if someone called a woman you cared about a ho?

    About the same as I’d react to about a dozen other insults, none of which are actionable under law.