$100M Defamation Lawsuit Against Russell Westbrook by Hecklers Dismissed by Utah Judge: Reports

Two fans sued for defamation after a 2019 altercation at a game that prompted Russell Westbrook to call their actions "racial"

Russell Westbrook
Russell Westbrook. Photo: Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty

A defamation lawsuit against NBA star Russell Westbrook by two fans who got into an altercation with the athlete at a 2019 game has been tossed, according to multiple reports.

The $100 million suit, which also listed the Utah Jazz as a defendant, was dismissed on Thursday by a Utah judge who said Westbrook and the Jazz calling the plaintiffs' actions racist was a matter of opinion, according to the Deseret News.

The incident in question happened during a March 2019 game in Salt Lake City, where the Utah Jazz played the Oklahoma City Thunder. Westbrook was a point guard for the Jazz at the time.

During the game, Westbrook, 32, was involved in an altercation with plaintiffs Shane Keisel and Jennifer Huff, who were subsequently banned indefinitely from the arena, the Deseret News reported.

Westbrook said at the time that a fan in the stands told him "to get down on [his] knees like [he] used to," and video from the incident showed the Washington Wizards star saying, "I'll f— you up" to the fans, according to Sports Illustrated. He was reportedly fined $25,000 by the NBA for using "threatening language."

RELATED VIDEO: Russell Westbrook Is Opening Middle and High Schools in Los Angeles: I 'Want to Inspire and Empower'

"To me, that's just completely disrespectful, to me, I think it's racial, and I think it's inappropriate in the sense that there's no protection for the players," Westbrook, who did not name Keisel or Huff, said in a statement at the time.

Keisel, however, claims in the suit that there was nothing racial about his heckling, and said that he'd mockingly told Westbrook to "take care of his knees," as the athlete had them wrapped in towels on the bench, the Associated Press reported.

Keisel said the incident cost him his job and exposed him to online threats — and argued that Westbrook's statements and those by the Jazz and then-owner Gail Miller portrayed him and Huff as racist, according to the Deseret News.

Russell Westbrook
Russell Westbrook. Tim Warner/Getty

At the time, the Jazz reportedly said in a press release that Keisel — whom they did not identify — was banned "based on excessive and derogatory verbal abuse directed at a player."

Miller, meanwhile, said in a speech: "This should never happen. We are not a racist community. We have a code of conduct in this arena. It will be strictly enforced."

The Deseret News reported that Judge Derek P. Pullan concluded that being called "racist" is a matter of opinion, making Westbrook and the Jazz's statement constitutionally protected by the opinion privilege.

"The Court's conclusion today — that calling a person racist or attributing racist statements to him is not actionable in defamation — serves important policies underlying the First Amendment. It is only in the free expression of these ideas the nation can hope to heal the historic wounds of slavery and racial injustice that fester still today," the decision reportedly read. "That healing cannot occur if public dialogue about racism is silenced under threat of defamation liability."

Keisel's attorney Scott Hoyt told the AP that his client will appeal the trial court's decision, while Jazz attorney Jeff Hunt said the team was "pleased with the court's ruling."

Meanwhile, Westbrook made headlines this week after a fan in Philadelphia threw popcorn on him as he left the game Wednesday with an ankle injury. The 76ers reportedly said the unnamed fan is a season-ticket holder who has been banned from all arena events.

Related Articles