Satirical interview with superintendent ruled not libelous
MICHIGAN — The Michigan Court of Appeals in early September dismissed a libel suit brought against the Detroit News and one of its columnists over an editorial in the form of a satirical “interview” with a fictitious character whose name was similar to that of a school superintendent.
Former Birmingham school Superintendent Roger Garvelink sued the newspaper for defamation in June 1990 after columnist Chuck Moss wrote a column featuring an “interview” with “local Supt. Roger Gravelhead.” In the interview, Dr. Gravelhead boasted about using school budget cuts to punish voters and stated that educational professionals knew more about what students need than parents.
Prior to the publication of the column, Garvelink and other school officials cut the school system’s budget by $12 million over two years after local voters rejected a proposed property tax increase.
The court held that Moss’ column was protected speech under the First Amendment because the column could not reasonably be interpreted as stating actual facts about Garvelink. The Court of Appeals ordered the lower court to enter a summary disposition in favor of the Detroit News and Moss.
The court ruled that the column was a “lampoon” of Garvelink, and thus the “tenor” of the column was satirical. The court noted that the column’s tone was “humorous” and used an “obviously fictitious name.” Furthermore, the court held that no reasonable reader would believe that a school superintendent would make the comments contained in the “interview.”
The court also found that the column’s placement on the editorial page was significant because readers expect to find opinions and biases of individual writers there. The court also noted that the column contained “the sort of loose, figurative, or hyperbolic language which would negate the impression” that Moss was conducting an actual interview with Garvelink.
(Garvelink v. The Detroit News; Media Counsel: James Stewart, Detroit)