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Appeals court refuses to dismiss libel case involving parody

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         TEXAS         Libel         May 22, 2002    

Appeals court refuses to dismiss libel case involving parody

  • Two public officials in Texas sued an alternative weekly over a satirical story that the court agreed could be found believable by a reasonable reader.

A libel lawsuit against the Dallas Observer, an alternative weekly newspaper, will proceed because an appeals court ruled that readers of a satirical story published in 1999 might not have gotten the joke.

In refusing to dismiss the case, the Texas Court of Appeals, Second District, in Fort Worth also decided May 2 that the public officials who sued the Observer must prove that the reporter and editors who worked on the parody knew the story was false or acted with reckless disregard for the truth — a standard that the newspaper argued should not apply.

James Hemphill, attorney for the Observer, said the newspaper might seek another hearing before the appeals court or might appeal to the state Supreme Court.

The Observer‘s story, titled “Stop the Madness,” poked fun at public officials for the real-life jailing of a seventh-grader who wrote a graphic Halloween story depicting the shooting death of a teacher and two students. The Observer‘s story portrayed a fictional 6-year-old who was arrested, shackled and jailed for 10 days for writing a book report about Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s tale, “Where the Wild Things Are.”

The satire included made-up quotes from Darlene Whitten, the juvenile court judge who had sentenced the seventh-grader to five days in a juvenile facility, and Denton County District Attorney Bruce Isaacks. Whitten and Isaacks sued for libel, and a trial judge refused to dismiss the case.

The newspaper argued to the appeals court that the average reasonable reader would understand that the article was a parody or satire. The three-judge appellate panel ruled that a reasonable reader could find that the story was believable.

The story was published under the heading of “News,” attributed believable quotes to public officials and referred to the public officials by their real names, the opinion said. Several readers actually thought the report was true, and a radio talk-show host and a University of North Texas newspaper also treated the story as true, the court noted.

The newspaper also argued that the court should not apply the traditional “actual malice” standard, in which public officials who sue the media for libel must prove that the media knew a published story was false or acted with reckless disregard for the truth.

The Observer argued that satire and parody, which are intentionally fictional, cannot overcome the actual malice test. The newspaper urged the court to adopt a modified actual malice test for satire and parody. Under the modified standard, the plaintiffs would have to prove that the newspaper “subjectively intended for readers to believe the fiction was fact,” the opinion said.

The appeals court rejected the modified standard, saying it improperly raised the plaintiff’s burden of proof.

(New Times, Inc. v. Isaacks; Media Counsel: James A. Hemphill, George & Donaldson LLP, Austin, Texas) MD

© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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