Local non-profit threatened with lawsuit over documentary showing




Posted on April 28, 2010 at 5:48 PM

Updated Wednesday, Apr 28 at 7:20 PM

A local non-profit is being threatened with a lawsuit.  At issue is an award-winning documentary that it wants to show during its first-ever film festival.

The South Austin store, Ten Thousand Villages, is nearly 2,000 miles from the pristine shores of the Dominican Republic.  But the threat of a lawsuit makes it feel as if it's next door.

"We're essentially being bullied for doing something that is entirely legal just because somebody doesn't want us to talk about it," said Sharon Matheny.

Matheny is on the board for the non-profit store.  She says as soon as Ten Thousand Villages advertised that the documentary The Price of Sugar, based in the Dominican Republic, was set to be shown at the first Fair Trade Film Festival, they got a letter.  The letter was from a law firm representing the family criticized in the documentary.  It threatened to sue for defamation if they showed the film.  She says they're not the first.

"We had no idea that letters...have been sent out for the past three years to anyone who advertises online that they are going to be showing The Price of Sugar," she said.

She spoke with the film's producers, who are in the middle of a three-year lawsuit with the Dominican family. They told her everyone that advertised they were to show the film, received a letter.  And despite the threat, the film has been shown more than 100 times.

The Fair Trade Film Festival is set for Saturday, May 8 at the South Lamar Alamo Drafthouse.  But the board will not make a decision about whether to show the film until the preceding Friday night.

Local attorney Catherine Robb, with Segwick Detert Moran & Arnold, is not involved in the lawsuit, but specializes in First Amendment work.

"The fact that the film as run so many times probably would make it very difficult to get any damages.  To prove that in fact this showing caused any sort of appreciable damages," she said.

Still, this non-profit has to make a tough decision.

"We don't want the public to see us as saying, we'll stand up for these venerable populations if it's easy for us," said Matheny.

But they also can't do their job if they're in financial ruin.