A recent post on Friendly Atheist comments on the use of two Christian models in an Atheist Billboard. The models want the sign down. Do they have a case?
I am not including the picture as to prevent its further spread, but in the billboard the text messages by the daughter indicate that she no longer believes in the Christian doctrine, and bill board itself suggests skipping church. There is at least some precedent regarding deformation lawsuits by models. Candy Burns and her daughter, Cheyenne, the models used in the billboard, are requesting that American Atheists take it down, as the two are devout Christians.
The image was from iStock and was obtained legally. But there may be an issue. Because the billboard could be seen as suggesting that the models are atheists, and that they endorse atheism and skipping church, it could be seen as libel.
There is a somewhat similar case that comes from New York.
Burns lives in Arizona, American Atheists is in New Jersey, and none of the bill boards are in New York, so it may not be as easy to argue libel in this specific case. And as @abb3w pointed out, the model release form provided by iStock lists New York law as the law by which the contract should be governed. And in NOLAN v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, the Claimant, Avril Nolan had not signed a contract waiving potential damages from libel and the defendant, the State of New York, had used Nolan’s image in a PSA for HIV. There was no intent to imply that the model herself had HIV, however the decision by the courts was that, even if unintentional, the depiction of Nolan, “from the perspective of the average person, clearly subject[ed] her to public contempt, ridicule, aversion or disgrace and constitut[ed] defamation per se.”
So, the argument boils down to whether or not the image can be seen as libel. In order for the billboard to be considered libelous, there must be a risk of damages to the individuals in the image. Luckily for the models in question, “Atheist” groups often point out how atheists are discriminated against, and how their lives can be made difficult by others. So the very group that posted the billboard has provided argument that being labeled an atheist can be detrimental in society.
There is still the question of whether or not the models waived their rights to sue for libel. I do not have the full contract available, but the iStock site does include the state “No matter what license you buy, you can never use iStock content for… pornographic, obscene or libelous works.” While I am a solid proponent of free speech, if the contract specifically demands that the content not be used for libelous content, American Atheists could be in violation of their contract with iStock, and as such, with the models.