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Supreme Court declines to hear libel-by-parody case

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   WASHINGTON, D.C.

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   WASHINGTON, D.C.   ·   Libel   ·   June 6, 2005


Supreme Court declines to hear libel-by-parody case

  • The high court denied review of a Texas ruling that in libel cases involving satire, a public official must prove that the defendant either had reckless disregard for whether readers would believe the story or knew that reasonable readers would believe the story.

June 6, 2005  ·   The U.S. Supreme Court today declined to review the Texas Supreme Court’s dismissal of a libel suit filed by a Texas judge and district attorney over a satirical news story.

The fictional satire, published by the Dallas Observer in November 1999, detailed the arrest, shackling and detention of a 6-year-old because her book report on Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” is deemed to contain “terroristic threats.” The story included fictional quotes attributed to Ponder, Texas, Juvenile Court Judge Darlene Whitten and District Attorney Bruce Isaacks. The story parodied Whitten and Isaacks’ involvement in the real-life arrest and five-day detention of a 13-year-old for writing a Halloween story describing the shooting deaths of a teacher and two students.

The Supreme Court of Texas dismissed the lawsuit in September 2004, because a reasonable person would not believe that it stated actual facts about Whitten and Isaacks. The court also ruled that the “actual malice” standard, which requires public officials to prove that a defendant knew a story was false or had reckless disregard for whether it was true or not, could not be applied literally in a satire or parody case.

The Texas high court ruled that in a satire or parody case, a public official must prove that the defendant knew that a reasonable person would believe the story or had reckless disregard for whether they would believe it or not.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s denial to review the case expressed no view on the merits of the Texas court’s ruling, but does allow the ruling to stand.

(New Times, Inc. v. Isaacks; Media Counsel: James A. Hemphill, Graves, Dougherty, Heardon & Moody, Austin)GP

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