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 Civil Liberties Union Says Clevenger Misinterprets Key ‘Teddy Bear’ Scene

June 13, 2007 - The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana has responded to a lawsuit filed by a Knightstown teacher who is suing four former students and their parents over a horror film parody the students made on their own time away from school.

Dan Clevenger, a seventh-grade math teacher at Knightstown Intermediate School, filed suit last month in Henry Superior Court 1 against Isaac Imel, Cody Overbay, Charlie Ours and Harrison Null, and the boys' parents. He claims the students defamed and portrayed him in a false light in their film, "The Teddy Bear Master," and inflicted emotional distress upon him.

Attorneys for the ACLU are arguing that the film, which does contain a teacher character called "Mr. Clevenger," is not defamatory, but is protected speech under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. While admitting that the film contains crude humor and is distasteful in parts, the ACLU says "The Teddy Bear Master" is a parody, not defamation.

"The intent of the students was to create a work of fiction, and that is exactly what was created," ACLU attorney Gavin Rose said in one of the documents filed with the court. "No reasonable person could interpret the movie at issue as stating actual facts. …"

In the lawsuit filed on Clevenger's behalf, Indianapolis attorney David Seiter said "The Teddy Bear Master" contained "graphic depictions of violence against and the eventual murder of" Clevenger and his wife. The ACLU, which provided a detailed summary of the student's film in the papers it filed with the court last week, says this is not correct.

"While the plaintiff alleges at one point that he and his wife are both killed during the movie in question … this is clearly a misinterpretation of the plot," attorney Rose said. "Rather, the 'student' characters save the 'Mr. Clevenger' character from possessed teddy bears."

The ACLU also noted in its court filings that Imel and Overbay had very limited involvement in creation of the film. Instead, it had been Ours and Null who had been chiefly responsible for the film's production. "Neither Isaac Imel nor Cody Overbay assisted in the writing or conceptualization for the home-movie 'The Teddy Bear Master,'" Rose told the court. "Indeed, Isaac Imel appeared in only three scenes in the movie, and Cody Overbay did not appear in a single scene and filmed only one scene."

According to the ACLU's court filings, Imel didn't even know that Ours and Null had taken the film footage he had participated in and created a movie. Rose said Imel did not learn this until he was called to the principal's office last October to be questioned about the film.

"Until this meeting, Isaac had no knowledge that the movie had ever been completed or that it had ever been made into a DVD," Rose said. "In fact, neither he nor his parents possessed a copy of the DVD until they were provided an incomplete copy by the Charles A. Beard Memorial School Corporation and then a complete copy by Harrison Null's mother in advance of Isaac's expulsion hearing."

The ACLU has requested a change of judge, as permitted under Indiana's trial rules, and Henry Superior Court 1 Judge Michael Peyton appointed a panel of three prospective judges that includes John Kellam, a senior judge from Henry County, Delaware Circuit Court 1 Judge Marianne Vohees and Hancock Circuit Court Judge Richard Culver. The ACLU and Clevenger's attorneys will each have an opportunity to strike one of the three from the list, with the remaining judge taking jurisdiction over the case.

The ACLU has had prior success defending students involved "The Teddy Bear Master." After the four students were expelled from KHS last fall over the film, Imel, represented by the ACLU, and Overbay, who had private counsel, filed civil rights lawsuits against the school corporation that challenged their expulsions free speech grounds. In December, after being out of school 10 weeks, a federal judge found there was a substantial likelihood that the students would win their cases and issued a preliminary injunction that allowed them to return to while their lawsuits were pending.

Following the federal judge's ruling, CAB agreed to allow Ours and Null back in school as well. In late January, the ACLU added Ours to the lawsuit against the school corporation, and a settlement was eventually reached in March that had CAB's insurer paying a total of $69,000 to be divided between Imel, Ours and Overbay, their parents and attorneys.

 

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