It’s not that the law clearly protects humorous speech and satire. That question is a bit vexed. It’s defamatory to say something that brings another person into ridicule. So it looks like that is fairly easily satisfied. Actually, those looks are deceptive.
But that’s not the reason not to bring the threat. The reason is that you will invariably look like a complete plonker who can’t take a joke. This is what has happened, I think, to New Zealand Conservative Party Leader, Colin Craig. Here is the legal notice, the article and response.
(Also, unless you want to look even more like a plonker, try to refrain from admitting that the article you’re objecting to is obviously satire when your lawyer’s letter says it “cannot be dismissed as satire”.)
If that’s not enough, there are also legal reasons not to threaten defamation.
For a start, in many cases, a court will find that the article would not have been understood in a defamatory sense. That is, it won’t affect your reputation because everyone will realise that it’s made up. That’s particularly the case where there are strong contextual indications that it is satire (such as other, obviously made up quotes in the story, obvious exaggeration, a ridiculous headline, and a bunch of other equally silly stories surrounding the article “Bob Parker waiting to be returned to space). Be aware that the courts are also starting to accept that online speech is often to be taken with a grain of salt.
You might be frustrated that some people come up to you and say “Damn, Craig, I was surprised to see you say that”. You can’t line up some people in court to say what they think the article meant. That’s a question for the court to determine itself, on the basis of what some hypothetical ordinary, reasonable reader would have thought.
But that’s not the end of it. The plaintiff would have to identify a “sting” – that is, the barb between the lines that says something bad about him. What is it here? Here’s what he was (falsely!) quoted as saying:
“‘”Williamson likes to talk about big gay rainbows,” said Craig, “but it would help if he understood what the rainbow actually means. After Noah’s flood, God painted a giant rainbow across the sky, which was a message that he would never again flood the world, unless we made him very angry. And we have.””
What is the sting here? That he has extreme Christian beliefs? It’s not entirely clear – and I see that Mr Craig’s lawyer did not identify one. Once such a sting is spelled out, as it must be, it can – even in humour cases – then open up some other defences. It might be argued that the sting is true, or that it’s honest opinion, or that it’s covered by qualified privilege.
Those defences can be problematic in humour cases (”Oh, of course I didn’t intend it to be taken seriously, but if it was, it was my honest opinion”.) But those defences can’t be dismissed out of hand. I would expect a court to be sympathetic to an honest opinion defence in many satire situations.
I note that Colin Craig has reportedly withdrawn his threat. Good on him. But too late to avoid looking like a plonker.
Incidently, The Civilian handled the whole thing with aplomb, I think. He quickly added an amusing clarification that removed even the faint possibility that anyone could any longer regard it as defamatory. But he didn’t accede to Mr Craig’s more unreasonable demands. Well played, that man.
This post originally appeared on the Media Law Journal blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks