Reality TV Meets the Law

Is reality TV the next legal battleground?

By: Marisa M. Kashino

Lawyers know how to capitalize on the latest trend—as in 1999 when some firms began marketing Y2K practices to help clients through the crisis posed by those pesky double zeros.

Are reality-TV practices the next niche? Many reality shows seem to spiral into litigation. For example, Real Housewives of D.C. stars Tareq and Michaele Salahi warned their costars in a letter that referring to the couple as “party crashers” was “legally actionable defamation.”

Now Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University and a frequent media commentator, has become the latest local lawyer to dive into the morass of reality TV. The family featured on TLC’s new series Sister Wives has retained Turley to fend off Utah prosecutors. The family—which consists of husband Kody Brown and his four wives—is under investigation for violating polygamy laws.

Turley, who has written about morality laws, including the polygamy statute, is doing the work pro bono. He says the state of Utah has opted not to prosecute thousands of other polygamists, so he sees no reason that his clients’ situation should “move from the television guide to the criminal docket.”

Earlier this year, a local woman hired Washington employment lawyer Jason Ehrenberg to sue MTV, Viacom, and Bunim/Murray Productions in DC Superior Court after she made an intoxicated appearance on The Real World: Washington D.C., which she claimed caused her emotional distress and to miss out on job opportunities. Her case has since been moved to the US District Court for DC.

For their part, the Salahis have created lots of local legal work. Stephen Best, co-head of Dewey & LeBoeuf’s white-collar criminal-defense group, helped them navigate the congressional probe into their appearance at last year’s White House state dinner. There also have been disputes over their family winery, unpaid debts, and other matters, including their polo club’s recent bankruptcy filing. Unfortunately for the DC Bar, their reality-TV lawyer du jour is Los Angeles–based attorney Lisa Bloom.

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This article first appeared in the November 2010 issue of The Washingtonian.