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Newspaper’s second attempt to dismiss parody libel suit refused

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    NMU         TEXAS         Libel         Nov 26, 2002    

Newspaper’s second attempt to dismiss parody libel suit refused

  • Appeals court finds — for the second time — that a Dallas Observer satire piece could be found defamatory.

In an opinion that appeared almost identical to one issued in May, a Texas appeals court said Nov. 21 that the subjects of a satirical piece in the Dallas Observer could proceed with a libel suit against the newspaper.

The court made a similar ruling on May 2 and then reconsidered the issue upon the Observer‘s motion to have the court rehear the case. The same three-judge panel heard the both appeals.

The case concerned the parody piece, “Stop the madness,” which poked fun at public officials for the real-life arrest of a seventh grader who wrote a Halloween story about the shooting of a teacher and two students at his school. The Observer‘s story, published in 1999, told the fictional tale of a 6-year-old who was jailed for 10 days for writing a book report on the classic children’s book, “Where the Wild Things Are,” by Maurice Sendak.

The satire included fake quotes from Denton County District Attorney Bruce Isaacks and from Darlene Whitten, the actual juvenile court judge who had sent the seventh grader to a juvenile facility for five days.

“Any implication of violence in a school situation, even if it was just contained in a first-grader’s book report, is reason enough for panic and overreaction,” the story jokingly quoted Whitten as saying.

Whitten and Isaacks are the plaintiffs in the libel suit.

The case addresses whether satirical stories about public figures are protected under the First Amendment.

The second appeals court opinion reiterated the first decision’s findings that a “reasonable reader” could find the story believable. Some readers thought the report was true, the court noted.

The court also reaffirmed that the newspaper would be judged under the “actual malice” standard, under which public officials who sue the media must prove the media knew the story at issue was false or acted with reckless disregard for the truth. The modified test proposed by the newspaper, whereby plaintiffs would have to prove that the newspaper intended readers to believe the story was factual, would not be adopted.

James Hemphill, attorney for the Observer, said the newspaper has not yet decided whether it will appeal the decision to the Texas Supreme Court.

Hemphill said that if the newspaper did appeal, he would continue to argue that the “actual malice” standard, when applied in libel cases involving parody, should be adjusted to take into account the circumstances of the satire.

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

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© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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