ACLU: Order Removing Satirical Article From Website Unconstitutional; Fights To Preserve Humor In Public Discourse

Affiliate: ACLU of Louisiana
March 11, 2010 12:00 am

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AMITE, LA – Today the ACLU filed a “friend of the court” brief in support of Nicholas Brilleaux, editor of Hammond Action News, who has been sued for defamation for his satirical article about a giraffe mauling a worker at Folsom’s Global Wildlife Center. The article, published on Hammond Action News’s website following the tragic death of a trainer at Sea World, and is clearly intended as satire. Hammond Action News is a satirical site similar in tone to “The Onion,” and runs articles and satiric commentary through the lens of the people of Tangipahoa Parish. The website can be found at http://www.hammondactionnews.com/.

On March 2, 2010, Amite Judge Brenda Bedsole Ricks issued a temporary restraining order that required Brilleaux to take the piece off of the HAN website. She set the matter for hearing on a preliminary injunction for March 15, 2010 before Judge Wolfe. The ACLU filed a brief to convince the Court that the issuance of a preliminary injunction violates Brilleaux’s freedom of speech.

“Satire is one of our most treasured forms of social commentary,” said Marjorie R. Esman, Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “Cartoons dating back to the founding days of our nation included caricatures of politicians and public entities. The Hammond Action News site is obviously a parody and is intended as humorous social commentary, which we must protect as a vital part of our public discourse.”

The ACLU’s brief, authored by cooperating attorney Michael D. Bass and ACLU Legal Director Katie Schwartzmann, sets out the clearly established law that courts cannot hold authors liable for speech that is obviously satire and that is intended as social commentary. Any other treatment of satire would “effectively eliminate parody as a genre of protected expression.”

“Certainly individuals do not have a constitutional right to knowingly tell lies about another person. However, where the speech is intended as a parody, and a reasonable reader would perceive it to be a joke, the speaker cannot be punished for his comments,” said Katie Schwartzmann, ACLU Legal Director. “Any reasonable person reading Hammond Action News would conclude that the site is satirical- rather than factual- in nature. If Global Wildlife’s argument is accepted by the court, anyone publishing a parody or satirical piece could be sued. This would be a tragic result.”

ACLU Foundation of Louisiana is represented by Michael D. Bass and ACLU Legal Director Katie Schwartzmann.

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