• Texas Supreme Court Protects Satire In A Libel Suit Context
  • March 8, 2005
  • Law Firm: Frost Brown Todd LLC - Louisville Office
  • In one of the more interesting First Amendment cases in the last several years, the Texas Supreme Court unanimously ruled that satire is a protected form of free speech, even if it is not clearly labeled or attributes false quotes to real public officials. The September 3, 2004 decision in New Times, Inc. d/b/a Dallas Observer, et al. v. Bruce Isaacks and Darlene Whitten puts an end to a libel suit filed five years ago by two Denton County, Texas elected officials against the Dallas Observer, a weekly alternative newspaper. New Times owns the Dallas Observer.

    The Texas Supreme Court recently ruled that a fictional newspaper article was satire and did not libel two county officials. In November 1999, a seventh grader in Ponder, Texas was arrested and detained by two county officials after authorities deemed that the Halloween story he wrote as a school assignment contained terrorist threats. Subsequently, the Dallas Observer published a satirical article ridiculing the officials involved in the incident. The fictitious article entitled "Stop the Madness" described the arrest and detention of a six year old girl who wrote about cannibalism, fanaticism, and disorderly conduct in her book report on Maurice Sendak's classic children's book, Where the Wild Things Are. The piece included multiple false factual assertions and quotes and attributed fabricated words and conduct to District Attorney Bruce Isaacks and Judge Darlene Whitten.

    Isaacks and Whitten filed a complaint against the owners, publishers, writers, and editors of the Dallas Observer claiming that they were libeled by the article. One of the defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that the average reader would understand the article as a parody rather than statements of fact about the plaintiffs. The trial court denied the summary judgment motion, holding that there was a fact question as to how the reasonable reader would understand the article. The court of appeals affirmed. The Texas Supreme Court granted the defendants' petition for review to address the First Amendment issues.

    The court limited its analysis to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, stating that its concerns were congruent with those of the Texas Constitution. The court then considered how to best balance the First Amendment protection for satirical communications with potential defamation liability. The court concluded that an objective test evaluating whether the publication could be reasonably understood as describing actual facts provided the appropriate balance. The test does not inquire whether some readers were misled or whether readers actually understood the satire, but rather asks whether a reasonable reader would conclude that the piece conveys statements of fact.

    Accordingly, the court analyzed whether a reader of ordinary intelligence would interpret the "Stop the Madness" article taken as a whole in light of the surrounding circumstances as stating actual facts. The article contained clues that involved exaggeration or distortion, which collectively suggested it was a satire. For example, a photo of a small child holding a stuffed animal captioned "Do they make handcuffs this small? Be afraid of this little girl" was placed next to the article. Further, the article included a fabricated quote attributed to then-Governor George W. Bush stating that the children's book clearly had "deviant, violent, sexual overtones" and referenced a freedom opposing religious group with the acronym, "'GOOF.'" In addition, the reference in the article to the actual incident involving the seventh grader provided a signal to the reader that the article was a commentary on that controversy.

    The fact that the article was printed in the news section did not necessarily imply that the piece contained true statements. The Dallas Observer was an alternative weekly newspaper that reported "'the news in context with perspective and sometimes with an individual's voice" and had published other satirical pieces. Thus, the reasonable reader would not presume that an article in the news section the Observer was an actual news story.

    Lastly, the court asserted that even if the article were reasonably understood as stating actual facts, the respondents were still required to prove actual malice to prevail on their claims. The proper inquiry was whether the publisher either knew or had reckless disregard for whether the article could reasonably be interpreted as stating actual facts. The defendants provided detailed credible affidavits stating that there was no intent that "Stop the Madness" be taken as stating actual historical fact. These affidavits not only denied actual malice, but further provided an explanation of the steps taken to ensure that the article was to be taken as fiction. The court therefore held that the defendants adequately established lack of actual malice. For these reasons, the article contained speech protected by the First Amendment and did not libel the county officials.

    The Texas Supreme Court's full opinion on New Times, Inc. d/b/a Dallas Observer v. Isaacks et al. can be found at www.supreme.courts.state.tx.us, Case No. 03-0019.

    Satire and Parody in the Broadcast Context

    The decision of the Texas Supreme Court in the New Times, Inc. case is consistent with other cases that have analyzed the parody and satire issue in the broadcast context.

    Broadcasts that are parodies or satires also may invite a defamation lawsuit. In one case, a public figure sued a radio station for defamation for broadcasting a song poking fun at his financial and legal troubles. In dismissing the lawsuit, the court noted, "In cases involving comedic expressions, courts must examine the challenged statement in light of its content, its effect on its audience, and the context of its delivery." The court found that the parody of Check Berry's "Roll Over, Beethoven" was "intended to amuse, rather than to injure" and that its nonsensical lyrics would alert even the most careless listener to the comedic intent. The song was broadcast during the radio station's morning comedy program, a context that would alert listeners that the song was a parody. Considering all these factors, the court found that "a reasonable listener could not have helped but find the song humorous."