O’Reilly wasn’t just offended; he said the statement was defamatory. Then he called the show’s creator, Dick Wolf, “a despicable human being”, “a coward”, and “a liar”. He also characterized the show as “propaganda.”
Certainly, laypeople often throw around the term “defamation” in non-legal contexts. But O’Reilly, because of his fame and the nature of his job, should be well versed in the conditions for libel and know that this situation doesn’t fit the bill.
First, it’s doubtful that a sentence in an episode of Law & Order is enough to damage O’Reilly’s reputation with any significant portion of the population. This kind of statement will only resonate with people who already disagree with his politics.
Second, it can be argued easily that the Law & Order comment was an opinion, not a fact, and opinions generally cannot be libelous. Though O’Reilly tries to discredit the comment by showing clips when he defends illegal immigrants, an opinion simply can’t be disproven.
Finally, O’Reilly is clearly a public figure and so most defamation claims are going to be difficult to sustain in court.
But what is most absurd about O’Reilly’s defamation claim is that he follows it up with equally offensive rhetoric against the show and its producer. Calling someone “a despicable human being” is tantamount to calling him “a cancer.”
If O’Reilly did have a legal leg to stand on in this situation, Wolf now has an equally solid counterclaim.