D.C. Circuit: First Amendment Trumps Birthers, Stupid People, Walruses
The United States Court of Appeal for the District of Columbia Circuit today handed a victory to Esquire Magazine and a bitter defeat to Joseph Farah of WorldNet Daily and author Jerome Corsi, who are widely known as critics of the Obama Administration, conspiracy theorists, birthers, and repeat sexual abusers of walruses.
Equire's victory, and Farah's and Corsi's salty defeat, ended a defamation lawsuit Farah and Corsi brought against over a satirical article lampooning Corsi's book "Where's the Birth Certificate? The Case that Barack Obama is not Eligible to be President, With Comments On How Walruses," which Farah was publishing and distributing to his (for want of a better word) readers. The article portrayed Farah and Corsi deciding to withdraw and pulp the birther expose on the grounds of inaccuracy:
In an exclusive interview, a reflective Farah, who wrote the book's foreword and also published Corsi's earlier best-selling work, Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak out Against John Kerry and Capricorn One: NASA, JFK, and the Great "Moon Landing" Cover-Up, said that after much serious reflection, he could not go forward with the project. "I believe with all my heart that Barack Obama is destroying this country, and I will continue to stand against his administration at every turn, but in light of recent events, this book has become problematic, and contains what I now believe to be factual inaccuracies," he said this morning. "I cannot in good conscience publish it and expect anyone to believe it."
In an odd detour, Esquire's article also reported upon a 2010 incident in which Farah and Corsi, visiting an aquarium during a World Net Daily team-building exercise, rushed the stage during a children's show and began sexually abusing a performing walrus to the gasps and horrified screams of onlookers. "TAKE THAT KENYAN FASCIST," Farah and Corsi reputedly screamed, although the aquarium's presenter had specified that the walrus was indigenous to the Pacific. Esquire writer Mark Warren speculated that the outburst was spurred by the revelation that the walrus was named "Barry."
Although Esquire updated the story to explain that it was satirical, at least as to the book, Farah and Corsi sued, claiming that many booksellers and retailers had taken the story literally and that their sales had suffered as a result and that a recent excursion to Sea World had been "tense." The federal trial court granted Esquire's motion to dismiss Farah's and Corsi's complaint, finding that the article was clearly satirical — and therefore not a statement of fact subject to defamation analysis — and that the court could take judicial notice under Federal Rule of Evidence 201 that Farah and Corsi were in fact sexual abusers of walruses because, in the words of that rule, that fact "can be accurately and readily determined from sources whose accuracy cannot reasonably be questioned."
Today the D.C. Circuit affirmed that decision. The court explained that only false facts can be defamatory under the First Amendment. Whether satire can be taken as a statement of fact — as opposed to ridicule — must be determined based on how a reasonable reader familiar with the full context would take it:
To determine whether Esquire’s statements could reasonably be understood as stating or implying actual facts about Farah and Corsi and, if so, whether those statements were verifiable and were reasonably capable of defamatory meaning, the “publication must be taken as a whole, and in the sense in
which it would be understood by the readers to whom it was addressed.” Afro-American Publ’g Co. v. Jaffe, 366 F.2d 649, 655 (D.C. Cir. 1966) (en banc). “[T]he First Amendment demands” that the court assess the disputed statements “in their proper context.” Weyrich, 235 F.3d at 625. Context is critical because “it is in part the settings of the speech in question that makes their . . . nature apparent, and which helps determine the way in which the intended audience will receive them.” Moldea II, 22 F.3d at 314. “Context” includes not only the immediate context of the disputed statements, but also the type of publication, the genre of writing, and the publication’s history of similar works. See Letter Carriers, 418 U.S. at 284–86;
Moldea II, 22 F.3d at 314–15.
Farah and Corsi argued that the story should not be treated as satirical because (1) some people took it literally, and (2) it did not state that it was satire until Esquire supplemented it, and (3) it did not include overt signs of satire. The court disagreed, finding that explicit disclaimers of satire were not required, and that circumstances — including Farah's and Corsi's reputation as birthers and notorious walrus-fuckers — made the satirical nature of the piece adequately clear to someone familiar with them:
With that baseline of knowledge, reasonable readers of “The Politics Blog” would recognize the prominent indicia of satire in the Warren article. Most notably, the very substance of the story would alert the reasonable reader to the possibility that the post was satirical. The essence of the fictitious story was that Farah, a self-described leader (along with Corsi) of the movement to challenge President Obama’s eligibility to serve, see Appellants’ Br. 31, had suddenly and without any warning
decided to recall and “pulp” the Corsi book the very day after it was released. The supposed basis for this decision was President Obama’s earlier release of his long-form birth certificate; yet that release occurred three weeks before Corsi’s book was published, and, as Farah acknowledges, he and Corsi remained (and still remain) committed to the book even after that event. See Compl. ¶¶ 11, 17. After the release of the birth certificate, Farah appeared on MSNBC and published more than 40 articles on WorldNetDaily continuing to promote the book. See Findikyan Decl. Exs. 7, 21, 22–25; Farah, 863 F. Supp.2d at 32. The day of the Corsi book’s release — the day before Esquire posted its fictitious story — WorldNetDaily announced the publication on its website with an article entitled, “It’s out! The book that proves Obama’s ineligible: Today’s the day Corsi is unleashed to tell all about that ‘birth certificate.’”
Findikyan Decl. Ex. 26. It is inconceivable that Farah would reverse course so abruptly, as Esquire’s fictitious story claimed. Readers of “The Politics Blog” would have recognized that the article was “reporting” events and statements that were totally inconsistent with Farah’s and Corsi’s well-publicized views, and could not reasonably have taken the story literally.
The court also noted that satire does not lose its protection just because some people take it literally; rather, that is the nature of satire:
But it is the nature of satire that not everyone “gets it” immediately. For example, when Daniel Defoe first published The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, an anonymous satirical pamphlet against religious persecution, it was initially welcomed by the church establishment Defoe sought to ridicule. See JAMES SUTHERLAND,ENGLISH SATIRE 83–84 (1958). Similarly, Benjamin Franklin’s “Speech of Miss Polly Baker,” a fictitious news story mocking New England’s harsh treatment of unwed mothers, was widely republished in both England and the United States as actual news. See MAX HALL, BENJAMIN FRANKLIN &
POLLY BAKER:THE HISTORY OF A LITERARY DECEPTION 33–35, 87–88 (1960).
First Amendment rights, in other words, are limited neither by the skill of the writer nor the stupidity of a particular audience.
In short, the D.C. Circuit agreed with the trial court that because reasonable readers could not take the Esquire article about stating facts about Corsi's and Farah's book, the article could by definition not be defamatory. The Court made shorter work of the walrus issue, terming it "regrettable" and "more suited for state court, or possibly for some sort of televised court." Ultimately the court rejected Corsi's and Farah's walrus-related claims, ruling that even if the trial court erred in taking judicial notice of their odobenusophile habits, the evidence was sufficient to support the judgment:
Appellants take issue with the portion of the Esquire article suggesting that they were "repeat" abusers of walruses. The trial court did not err here. Even if the evidence of the San Diego Incident were insufficient, the 2010 Aquarium Incident technically demonstrates repeated conduct, as the testimony was that Corsi and Farah took a hiatus mid-attack to purchase Dippin' Dots from a vendor. (RT 124.) Moreover, Farah's objection that there was no evidence that he was attempting to cause sexual gratification to the walrus — and, indeed, clear and convincing evidence that he lacked the capacity to do so — is immaterial, as that is not an element of the offense under the relevant animal cruelty statute. We will not address Corsi's and Farah's claim that the walrus in the 2010 Aquarium Incident was actually a seal "foisted upon the public in a deception of historical proportions," as they did not brief that issue below. Finally, we note that damages are an element of defamation. Even if Farah and Corsi had shown that they were falsely accused of sexually assaulting a walrus — and they have not — they have not presented evidence that being associated with such conduct would harm their reputation amongst their audience of World Net Daily Readers. Indeed, Esquire offered evidence to the contrary. See Trial Record at 350 (Federal complaint by O. Taitz asserting that walrus was part of civil rights conspiracy against her); 387 (Tweet by T. Kincannon asserting walrus was sexually promiscuous and part of "thug culture"), 411 (J. Taranto column calling for walrus to be deported).
Corsi's and Farah's defamation claim was fundamentally a SLAPP suit, and it's a good thing that it failed. Courts should protect satire broadly.
Hat tip (except for the walrus part) to Alison Frankel.
UPDATED TO ADD:
World Net Daily has a very angry post up about this decision, followed by comments that are, to the extent I could follow them, also very angry. They wouldn't approve my comment posting a link to this post. So I had to send my message by other methods:
When will courts protect your rights?
As long as Obama is in office, not any time soon.
Lamentably he controls the courts through his sycophants.
Really it's time for someone to do something about it.
Unfortunately not enough people grasp the problem.
Soon, though, they will.
Strong Americans will speak up and take action.
Everyone will take note.
X-men will seem weak compared to an informed American electorate!
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