You Can’t Sue Someone for Satire, Bob.

By Stephanie Leacock

Someone finally sued John Oliver, host of Home Box Office’s (“HBO”) weekly satirical news program Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (Last Week Tonight), for one of his biting monologues.[1]  Robert Murray, owner of multiple coal companies, filed a complaint in Marshall County Coal Co. v. John Oliver in the Circuit Court of Marshall County, West Virginia on June 21, 2017 for defamation, false light invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress after Oliver’s monologue on coal, or “cocaine for Thomas the Tank Engine,” aired on June 18, 2017.[2]  The offending segment prominently and unflatteringly featured Murray and his companies while Oliver argued that the coal industry is dying and that the interests of coal miners are not aligned with those of coal mine owners.[3]  Murray is no stranger to defamation lawsuits, filing one against the New York Times as recently as May of this year.[4]  Unfortunately for Murray, established law supports protecting Oliver’s satirical presentation of the news from defamation lawsuits such as Murray’s.[5]

In order to prove defamation under the First Amendment, public figures and officials bringing suit must provide sufficient evidence that a defendant made statements with actual malice, which is defined as knowledge that the statements are false or made in reckless disregard of the truth.[6]  As the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) put so pithily, “You can’t sue people for being mean to you, Bob.”[7]  This rule covers, among other forms of speech, newspaper publications,[8] minor intentional alterations to quotations,[9] political cartoons and satire,[10] and speech of public concern.[11]  The constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression protect the free flow of information and debate, despite the truth, popularity, or social utility of information and opinions.[12]

In the lawsuit, Murray alleges that Oliver published the coal segment with actual malice.[13]  The specific subjects that Murray addresses are the Crandall Canyon Mine collapse, Murray Energy’s safety policies, and various statements Oliver made regarding Murray’s likeness and character.  For example, Oliver stated in his monologue that Murray looks like a “geriatric Dr. Evil,” and stated that denial of the story that a squirrel told Murray to own a coal company was believable because, “even by your [Murray’s] standards, that would be a pretty ridiculous thing to say.”[14]  Murray claims that, despite providing accurate information to Oliver to use in the segment, Oliver broadcasted falsehoods about Murray and Murray Energy and excluded information that showed Murray and his company in a good light.[15]  Murray also claims that Oliver unfairly characterized him as villainous through several mocking statements to purposely assassinate Murray’s character.[16]

In spite of Murray’s allegations, the First Amendment likely protects Oliver’s monologues.  Last Week Tonight is a comedy show about real news that investigates and discusses topics of public concern.[17]  While Oliver takes a different approach to disseminating information than esteemed publishers like the New York Times or broadcasting agencies like the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) by engaging his viewers through pointed and ridiculous jokes, the content of his shows is factual or, at minimum, not disseminated in reckless disregard for the truth.[18]  Oliver cited reputable sources in his segment on coal to refute Murray’s claims regarding Murray Energy and the Crandall Canyon Mine collapse, such as the Department of Labor’s findings in its investigation into the collapse of the mine and several reputable newspapers.[19]  Oliver’s reliance on the good reputation of his sources likely proves that he aired his statements without actual malice, even if Murray proves those statements were false.[20]  Additionally, even if Oliver’s comedic statements were intended to emotionally distress Murray, Murray likely could not show actual malice under the First Amendment because satire is protected speech.[21]  If it were otherwise, “political cartoonists and satirists would be subjected to damages awards without any showing that their work falsely defamed its subject.”[22]

The Circuit Court of Marshall County in West Virginia will likely rule in Oliver’s favor and find that the First Amendment protects Oliver’s statements made on Last Week Tonight.  Such a ruling would bode well for similar shows such as Adam Ruins Everything, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, all of which address issues of public concern in a satirical manner.  However, if the court distinguishes Oliver’s situation from that of more traditional forms of media and political satire, such as newspapers and political cartoons, these programs and their parent companies would be open to suits from the subjects of their segments for “say[ing] mean things.”[23]  Even if the statements made on these shows were true, satirical news could be suppressed by becoming a poor investment for television networks required to handle a multitude of lawsuits caused by satirical commentary on matters of public concern.

 

[1] Complaint, Marshall County Coal Co. v. John Oliver, No: 17-c-124 (Marshall Cty. Cir., June 21, 2017); Marissa Martinelli, A Coal Baron is Suing John Oliver for “Character Assassination” Over Last Week Tonight’s Talking Squirrel Segment, Slate, June 22, 2017, http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2017/06/22/coal_baron_robert_murray_is_suing_john_oliver_over_his_segment_featuring.html.

[2] See Complaint; see also Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO television broadcast June 18, 2017).

[3] Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

[4] See Murray v. Tarley, No. C2-01-693, 2002 WL 484537 (S.D. Ohio Feb. 21, 2002); Murray v. Knight-Ridder, Inc., No. 02 BE 45, 2004 WL 333250 (Ohio Ct. App. Feb. 18, 2004); Liz Spayd, A Rare Libel Suit Against The Times, NY Times (May 10, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/10/public-editor/murray-energy-libel-suit.html?_r=0.

[5] See Mason v. New Yorker Magazine, Inc., 501 U.S. 496, 517 (1991); Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46, 56 (1988); Garrison v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 64, 74-75 (1964); New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 279-80 (1964).

[6] Mason, 501 U.S. at 517; Hustler Magazine, 485 U.S. at 56; Garrison, 379 U.S. at 74-75 (1964); New York Times Co., 376 U.S. at 279-80.

[7] Brief Amicus Curiae of the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia Foundation in Opposition to Plaintiffs’ Motion for a Temporary Restraining Order and in Support of Dismissal and Rule 11 Sanctions, Marshall County Coal Co. v. John Oliver (N.D.W. Va. Aug. 1, 2017) (No: 17-cv-00099) at 5 [hereinafter ACLU Brief].

[8] New York Times, 376 U.S. at 299.

[9] Mason, 501 U.S. at 517.

[10] Hustler Magazine, 485 U.S. at 53.

[11] Garrison, 379 U.S. at 74; see also Philadelphia Newspapers v. Hepps, 475 U.S. 767, 776-77 (1986).

[12] Garrison, 379 U.S. at 73; New York Times, 376 U.S. at 299.

[13] Compl., supra note 1, at ¶ 59.

[14] Id. at ¶¶ 44, 51

[15] Id. at ¶¶ 49-50

[16] Id. at ¶¶ 45-46, 51

[17] Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Series Information, http://www.hbo.com/last-week-tonight-with-john-oliver/about/index.html.

[18] Id.

[19] Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO television broadcast June 18, 2017).

[20] New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 287 (1964).

[21] Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46, 53 (1988).

[22] Id.

[23] ACLU Brief, supra note 7, at 5.

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