Thanks and Congrats To Dhillon Law Group For Important Pro-Bono Anti-SLAPP Win

I know I say it all the time, but here it is again: the system is broken, and only the generous community service of lawyers prevents people from getting ground up in it.

A few months ago I got a private request from a young woman sued for defamation. This was the core of the case: she made a sexual harassment complaint against another student after a brief relationship, and her school investigated it as required by Title IX and found in her favor. Days later, the fellow student sued her — not her university, but her — for defamation based on her participation in the school's investigation.

Most grad students can't afford modern litigation. I put out an immediate mini-Popehat Signal seeking pro bono help for her. Harmeet K. Dhillon and Krista L. Baughman of the Dhillon Law Group swiftly answered the call. The defendant stuck out her thumb hoping for a ride on the back of a turnip truck and wound up in a Porsche. Harmeet and Krista filed an anti-SLAPP motion, which they recently won, as they describe here.

In addition to being very significant for the defendant, it's a win that's very important for anti-SLAPP litigants in cases involving college administrative proceedings. California has an absolute privilege for statements made in the course of "official proceedings" — if you sue someone for slandering you during their testimony at a trial, for instance, the defendant can easily win an anti-SLAPP motion based on that privilege. This prevents a vast amount of harassing and retaliatory litigation. But until Harmeet and Krista successfully litigated this, no California court had expressly extended the "official proceeding" privilege to Title IX proceedings mandated by federal law. Now, thanks to their work, students can report conduct to school authorities without worrying that they will be drawn into frivolous but ruinous defamation litigation.

Many people are concerned that schools are conducting Title IX proceedings without adequate due process protections for the accused. This is a very legitimate complaint. But that wasn't the issue here. Here the plaintiff wasn't suing the school (with its money and lawyers) for disciplining him without due process. Rather, he was suing the individual complainant for defamation merely for reporting his behavior, forcing her to defend herself without the school in court. This was the absolutely right result, and consistent with other laws making reports of misconduct privileged from defamation suit. Absent this rule, whenever one college student accused another of some misconduct, the accused could retaliate with an expensive, stressful, all-encompassing lawsuit.

The case took a lot of work and some creative lawyering on a novel issue. Harmeet K. Dhillon and Krista L. Baughman did it for free. There's no guarantee they'll collect any fees even though they won the anti-SLAPP. But they did it because it was the right thing to do and because people like this defendant depend on people like them for justice, and they did an exceptionally good job at it. Please join me in applauding and thanking them.

California: No, You Can't Show That Civil War Painting At A State Fair. It Has a Confederate Flag In It.

You may have seen something about this already: a California state legislator's mother was offended when she saw novelty Confederate money bearing the Confederate flag in the gift shop at the State Capitol. Naturally her son proposed a new law, now in effect, banning the State of California from displaying or selling the Confederate Flag or items bearing its image.

This raises some questions right off the bat. Why is the gift shop in the State Capitol of California selling novelty Confederate money? Why do legislators think that personal annoyances are grounds for legislation?

But the worst was yet to come: California officials, including both Department of Agriculture bureaucrats and counsel from the Attorney General's Office, decided that the law means that an artist could not show his civil war painting at the Big Fresno Fair, which allows hundreds of artists to display their work at its cultural fine arts pavilion. Why? Because the Civil War painting — like many such paintings — included an image of the Confederate flag, and so allowing an artist to display it with all the other work at the state fair would mean the state was displaying it in violation of the law.

No, really.

The artist has sued, and I wrote a column for the Los Angeles Daily Journal explaining why he should win, which you can read here (it's an authorized reprint; the web article is behind a paywall).

In a world choked with really stupid bureaucratic decisions, this one is notable for its idiocy.

What It's Like For The Client Subjected To A Bogus And Retaliatory Investigation

By day, Bob Blaskiewicz is a college professor. By night, he's a skeptical blogger, using the critical thinking skills he teaches to interrogate public quackery. He's a long-term critic of Stanislaw Burzynski, a Houston researcher famous and infamous for experimental cancer "treatments." He helps run a blog critical of Burzynski's claims. (Long-time readers of Popehat might remember that a supporter of Burzynski named Marc Stephens attempted, to the best of his modest ability, to threaten me at length with criminal investigations and legal proceedings, which generated what for better or worse became the blog's catchphrase.)

Blaskiewicz is fighting the good fight for science and skepticism over woo and those who prey upon the desperate. That has consequences. In his case, it generated a bogus and malicious report to the FBI about him. Bob describes what it was like in a post (not to mention what it was like to have to put up with me). The result was obvious and (after the fact) appropriate — the FBI determined that the "threat" was obviously not one, but speech protected by the First Amendment. It's still regrettable that bad faith retaliatory reports to law enforcement can upend people's lives. It was a privilege to help out Bob, who has a lot of insight into the client experience:

[I was learning that a big part of a defense attorney’s job is keeping their clients from hurting themselves by acting out of panic.]

Read his post, it's worth it.

How The University of Chicago Could Have Done A Better Job Defending Free Speech

The University of Chicago made the news last week with a strongly worded letter defending academic freedom. The heart of it was this:

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own

Reactions were predictable. Critics of campus culture (usually, but not always, on the right) loved it; supporters of trigger warnings and safe spaces (usually, but not always, on the left) didn't.

I think it could have been better written. Here's how I would have framed the same paragraph.

Our commitment to academic freedom will govern our response to community concerns about course content and campus expression in general. The community should not expect us to require professors to give "trigger warnings," or to discipline them if they decline to do so. The community should not expect us to prohibit or "disinvite" speakers who offer controversial or offensive ideas. Members of the community should exercise their freedom of association to form groups with similar interests, goals, and values, but should not expect to transform classes or public spaces into "safe spaces" where expression they oppose is prohibited.

I like my version better for several reasons.

First, it's clearer that the University isn't telling professors how to teach their classes. It's unserious to say that you stand for academic freedom but then dictate to professors exactly how they can talk about their class content. I don't read the letter to say they are prohibiting professors from choosing to offer trigger warnings, but I think they could have been clearer. I personally find trigger warnings infantilizing in most academic circumstances, but I'm not the one teaching the class.

Second, I think my version offers a more honest and philosophically coherent approach to "safe spaces." As I have argued before, "safe spaces" are completely consistent with freedom of association when they represent a group of people coming together voluntarily to determine how they want to interact. They're a problem when people decide they have the right to intellectual manifest destiny — when they have a right to use safe spaces as a sword rather than a shield by telling others what they can say in public spaces like classes, quads, and dorms. "This club is a space for [group x]" does not threaten academic freedom or freedom of expression. "This campus/dorm/class/quad is a safe space and so this speaker/topic/speech should not be allowed" definitely is.

This is going to get me called (among other things) a pedant. Guilty, with an explanation. Pedantry on basic civic virtues is a good thing. Free speech legalism is a good thing. Rhetoric that blurs the nature of rights and encourages misunderstandings is bad — particularly when it comes from a university. If the University of Chicago believes — as many of us do — that the values of academic freedom and free speech are under assault, then it shouldn't encourage misunderstandings of those concepts just for the pleasure of rhetorically spiking the ball. If your proposition is that college kids should act like grown-ups, you can talk to them with a bit more complexity and accuracy.

Conservatives railing against "safe spaces" without nuance should remember that freedom of association — which conservatives are supposed to be fighting for — is about something very like safe spaces. You think college kids shouldn't be able to form their own "safe spaces" where they hear what they want? Fine. But remind me — why should campus Christian groups be able to control who can be officers based on sharing the groups' values? On the other hand, liberals insisting that this is all a talk-radio fabrication should take another look. The rhetoric of safe spaces is being used, widely and explicitly, as a justification for excluding contrary expression. These people — whether a small minority or not — believe that universities have an obligation to exclude views that they, subjectively, deem harmful. If you support that, you're not in favor of academic freedom or free speech.

In short, University of Chicago's letter was a little triumphalist, a little misleading, and a little too vague.

Gawker, Money, Speech, And Justice

Gawker delenda est.

Gawker has occasionally provided quality journalism and entertainment. That doesn't stop me from despising its amoral and repulsive ethos. Gawker's utter destruction produces a feeling of glee in my guts but disquiet in my heart. As I've written before, I'm not sure that the ruinous verdict against Gawker was just, I don't think that the amount of damages awarded was defensible, and I'm concerned that the result was a product of the brokenness of our legal system.

But observers seem eager to push the wrong message about that brokenness. The scary part of the story isn't that the occasional vengeful billionaire might break the system and overwhelm even a well-funded target with money. Such people exist, but getting sued by them is like getting hit by lightning. No, for most of us the scary part of the story is that our legal system is generally receptive to people abusing it to suppress speech. Money helps do that, but it's not necessary to do it. A hand-to-mouth lunatic with a dishonest contingency lawyer can ruin you and suppress your speech nearly as easily as a billionaire. Will you prevail against a malicious and frivolous defamation suit? Perhaps sooner if you're lucky enough to be in a state with a good anti-SLAPP statute. Or perhaps years later. Will you be one of the lucky handful who get pro bono help? Or will you be like almost everyone else, who has to spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to protect your right to speak, or else abandon your right to speak because you can't afford to defend it?

The system isn't just broken for affluent publications targeted by billionaires. It's broken for everyone, and almost everyone else's speech is at much greater risk. Don't point to Peter Thiel as an exception. He's just a vivid and outlying expression of the rule.

Lawsplainer: No, Donald Trump's "Second Amendment" Comment Isn't Criminal

Donald Trump, against all advice and rumors of pivot, will continue to be Donald Trump. Today, at a rally, he uttered a line that some have taken as a suggestion that Hillary Clinton (or possibly judges) could or should be killed if they did not support Second Amendment rights:

At a rally here, Mr. Trump warned that it would be “a horrible day” if Mrs. Clinton were elected and got to appoint a tiebreaking Supreme Court justice.

“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks,” Mr. Trump said, as the crowd began to boo. He quickly added: “Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”

Trump's staff quickly issued a press release saying that this comment was merely a reference to the vigorous political activism of Second Amendment fans, not to violence. I express no opinion about what Trump "meant": I think trying to parse his Joycean ramblings is usually pointless.

But let's say we choose to interpret this as Donald Trump suggesting that, if Clinton appoints judges hostile to the Second Amendment, she or the judges could be shot.

Is that a crime? Is it outside the protections of the First Amendment?

No, I'm confident that it isn't.

People are referring to this as a threat, but it's more like incitement. Under any interpretation Trump isn't saying he will shoot anyone; he's suggesting that someone else might — and perhaps implying that they should.

Attempts to punish incitement to violence are governed by the "clear and present danger" test articulated in Brandenburg v. Ohio. Brandenburg involved a Klan rally at which a speaker said "We're not a revengent organization, but if our President, our Congress, our Supreme Court, continues to suppress the white, Caucasian race, it's possible that there might have to be some revengeance [sic] taken." He was convicted under the Ohio Criminal Syndicalism statute for "advocat[ing] . . . the duty, necessity, or propriety of crime, sabotage, violence, or unlawful methods of terrorism as a means of accomplishing industrial or political reform." In one of the most important First Amendment decisions of the last half-century, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction. "[T]he constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action." Thus, since the Klansman wasn't advocating imminent lawless action and likely to incite it, his words were protected by the First Amendment. By the same logic, Trump's comment is protected. It's conditional, it's directed to something that will happen (at the earliest) more than six months in the future, and it's not likely to produce action. I don't think this is a close call at all.

What if we stubbornly treat Trump's comment as a threat? Isn't it a federal crime to threaten a major presidential candidate?

Under the true threat doctrine, it's still protected by the First Amendment.

Consider the Supreme Court's ruling in Watts v. United States. At an anti-draft protest, Watts said he would resist the draft and that "If they ever make me carry a rifle the first man I want to get in my sights is L. B. J." He was convicted of threatening the President. The Supreme Court reversed the conviction. The court noted that the statement was made at a political rally and drew a laugh from the crowd. "We agree with petitioner that his only offense here was 'a kind of very crude offensive method of stating a political opposition to the President.' Taken in context, and regarding the expressly conditional nature of the statement and the reaction of the listeners, we do not see how it could be interpreted otherwise."

Since Watts courts have grappled with whether the government must prove that a threat is just objectively threatening (meaning, a reasonable person would take it as an expression of intent to do harm) or also subjectively threatening (meaning, the speaker intended that it be taken that way), and that issue is not fully resolved. Thankfully we don't have to delve into the fetid swamp that is Donald Trump's subjective intent, because I don't think the objective test is anywhere close to being met. Like Watts, the statement was spoken at a political rally, and like Watts, it drew laughter, and like Watts, it was hypothetical and conditional. Moreover the "maybe there is, I don't know" softens it substantially. At most it's the sort of hyperbole that Watts protected. It's not anywhere close to the sort of extreme and specific statements that have been taken as threats in the political context, like the abortion provider "wanted" posters in Planned Parenthood v. American Coalition of Life Activists or the nutty white supremacist in United States v. Turner (both of which show how courts sometimes blur the lines between incitement and threats). Again, with respect to dissenters out there, I don't see this as a close call.

In America, under the First Amendment, I can say something like "if Donald Trump gets elected, someone should assassinate him for the good of the nation." That statement may be immoral, and destructive of the very American values it purports to defend, but unless it calls for imminent action or expresses an objectively credible intent to do harm, it's protected speech.

Lawsplainer: Are Milo's Faked Tweets Defamatory?

I'm not going to address the broad subject of Twitter banning the needy, cynical huckster Milo Yiannopoulos. It's been done, you know what I'd say, and I don't have much to add.

I'll address just one small piece of the story. Before he was banned, Yiannopoulos retweeted bigoted tweets fabricated to look like Leslie Jones had uttered them. The tweets were fake, and Yiannopoulos knew they were fake.

Was it defamatory for Yiannopoulos to circulate the faked tweets falsely attributing bigoted statements to Jones?

The answer: probably not, given Yiannopoulos' reputation.

Only false statements of fact can be defamatory. Satire, ridicule, and insults cannot. The faked tweets were intended as trolling and — to use the term extraordinarily generously — "satire", not as a factual claim that Jones had uttered the words. Could some people look at the fake tweets and assume they were real and that Jones actually said those things? Yes. But courts give very broad protection to satire, and protect it even when some people take it seriously. In determining whether a challenged statement should be taken as satire/ridicule/insult/hyperbole or as a statement of fact, courts look at how a reasonable audience familiar with the speaker and the context would take it. In other words, the relevant question is whether the speaker's target audience, informed about the circumstances surrounding the statement, would take the statement as an assertion of fact. I wrote about this in 2013 when I described a D.C. Circuit opinion rejecting a WorldNetDaily lawsuit against Esquire. Esquire's satire of Joseph Farah and Jerome Corsi was protected people readers familiar with Esquire would recognize their story as a parody, not as a news story. Similarly, readers familiar with Popehat would recognize that my accusing Farah and Corsi of sexual molestation of walruses was satire serving as an example of the doctrine, even if someone unfamiliar with Popehat or the case might take it seriously.

Here, a reasonable audience familiar with the context (Yiannopoulos trolling and attacking someone for clicks and attention, and playing to his hooting bigoted admirers) and with the speaker (Yiannopoulos as a hack troll, known for hyperbole and insult, whose followers often fake tweets as a means of ridicule) would likely not take the fake tweets as real, particularly when he fairly quickly followed up with a mock-surprised "you mean those aren't real?" wink to his fans.

I'm not saying that no court could find otherwise. I'm saying that's the most likely result, and probably the correct one under the law.

Remember: nobody needs free speech rights to protect admirable speech by people we like. It's designed to protect despised speech by people we hate. Yiannopoulos deserves contempt for monetizing bigotry, and his fans are loathsome, but his speech is protected.

Hello! You've Been Referred Here Because You're Wrong About The First Amendment.

Welcome! Someone has referred you to this post because you've said something quite wrong about the First Amendment.

I apologize for this impersonal approach to your mistake. I would prefer to offer you an artisanal response to your wrongness, something that would respect and celebrate the unique ways that you've taken one of the most fundamental aspects of our mutual civic heritage as Americans and shat your ignorance upon it. Unfortunately, there are quite a few of you and only one of me, and I'm busy, and lazy. Also, quite frankly I feel that if I have to explain these things to just one more person, I may go quite mad. I don't mean mad in the vaguely amusing, sympathetic, relatable ways that people expect from me. I mean mad in an uncouth and alarming sense that will likely result in my calamitous misuse of some implement residing in the dark marchlands between tool and weapon, such as an adze.

So. Constrained as we are by this impersonal medium, let's discuss why you are completely wrong.

If you said something like "The First Amendment says 'Congress shall make no law,' and Congress isn't involved here, so it's not a First Amendment issue."

Congratulations! You've read the First Amendment. Even if you've ignored the last century of discourse about it, this raises you above most of the populace, particularly on the Internet.

You're right that the plain language of the First Amendment only limits Congressional power. But you've ignored some American history. Don't worry: you've only ignored a century and a half of it. The Bill of Rights was originally understood to limit the power of the federal government without limiting the states. But in 1868, after some recent unpleasantness, we amended the Constitution to add the Fourteenth Amendment, which includes this language: "No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." By its own terms, the Fourteenth Amendment forbids the states from infringing certain rights.

But which rights? Well, in the early 20th Century, the United States Supreme Court decided that certain fundamental rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights are included in the concept of liberty identified in the Fourteenth Amendment and therefore protected from infringement by "due process of law." This process — under which the court decided that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporated by reference rights from the Bill of Rights and made them enforceable against the states — is called incorporation, and the notion is called the incorporation doctrine. The Supreme Court has decided that most, but not all, rights from the Bill of Rights are incorporated by the Fourteenth Amendment and therefore protected from infringement by states. The Supreme Court decided — or, to be more accurate, assumed — in a 1925 decision that freedom of speech under the First Amendment is one of the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights that the states may not infringe because it is incorporated by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Therefore, the First Amendment does apply to actions by states and their political subdivisions (cities, counties, state agencies, etc.), and has for more than ninety years. You're wrong. Please stop being wrong and asking other people to be wrong with you.

If you said something like "the First Amendment only stops the government from censoring you so it doesn't apply to this civil case, which is one individual suing another."

Welcome back! You're still wrong. The First Amendment limits your ability to sue people.

Civil lawsuits employ government power in two ways. First, they are premised on laws passed by legislatures. A defamation lawsuit is a lawsuit based upon a defamation law enacted by a state, which is an action by the state. On occasion, they're based on a nebulous collection of non-statutory precedents called common law, which are nonetheless recognized and enforced by the government through the courts. Second, civil lawsuits employ government power to force you to come to court and force you to pay any resulting judgment against you.

So in 1964, faced with an Alabama defamation judgment against the New York Times for running an advertisement about abuse of civil rights protesters by local officials, the Supreme Court noted that the First Amendment obviously applies to private civil actions that employ state power. "The test is not the form in which state power has been applied but, whatever the form, whether such power has, in fact, been exercised." Because civil lawsuits aimed at speech invoke state power to attack speech, they are limited by the First Amendment. That doesn't mean that all civil lawsuits attacking speech are absolutely barred. It means that First Amendment analysis applies to them, and may or may not provide a defense to them.

If you think about it even a little, this is the only sensible interpretation. Under a contrary interpretation, a state could pass a law saying that private parties could sue you for offending them, or annoying them, or for expressing certain political views the state disfavors. People could then use the coercive power of the courts to sue you based on those laws. Although I admit there is a certain appeal to a regime under which I may ask a judge to compel you to pay my bar tab if you say stupid and ignorant things about the First Amendment, I recognize that it is not consistent with ordered liberty.

So: you're wrong, stop trying to spread wrong like gonorrhea in the Theater Department, try to be right, etc etc etc.

Fault: It's Yours, But Not ONLY Yours

You are at fault for not educating yourself about how our most fundamental American rights operate. However, you are not the only one at fault. Wrongness is not a zero-sum game. I also blame your teachers, although I sympathize with them. Also, America's press could not do a worse job informing you about the First Amendment if it tried, which frequently I believe it does. If you would like to know more about some of the ways that the American media shares blame for you being wrong, consider these classic media free speech tropes. If you would like to observe some of the ways that the educational system has failed us, attempt conversation with a college student.

I bid you good day.

Popehat Signal Update: Awesome Team Gets Great Appellate Result in Frivolous Case By AIDS Denier

Way back in 2013 I lit the Popehat Signal to get pro bono help for J. Todd Deshong, a blogger and HIV-positive AIDS activist. Woo merchant and AIDS denialist Clark Barker filed a frivolous lawsuit against Deshong, claiming that Deshong's critical web sites defamed him and infringed his trademark. A legal Dream Team assembled swiftly and formidably, and in 2014 that Dream Team got the frivolous complaint dismissed.

So far so good. But you can't fight vexatious litigants just by winning motions; you have to inflict upon them the costs of their actions. The Dream Team sought attorney fees under the Lanham Act, which allows a prevailing party to get fees in an "exceptional" case. The federal district court denied the request, saying that there wasn't enough evidence that the plaintiff acted in bad faith.

But that's not the right question, the Dream Team asserted. Today, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit agreed. They reversed the refusal to award fees and sent it back for the trial court to decide under the right standard:

We merge Octane Fitness’s definition of “exceptional” into our interpretation of § 1117(a) and construe its meaning as follows: an exceptional case is one where (1) in considering both governing law and the facts of the case, the case stands out from others with respect to the substantive strength of a party’s litigating position; or (2) the unsuccessful party has litigated the case in an “unreasonable manner.” See Octane Fitness, 134 S. Ct. at 1756. The district court must address this issue “in the case-by-case exercise of their discretion, considering the totality of the circumstances.” See id.

This standard is much friendlier to the targets of frivolous lawsuits. It doesn't require an inquiry into subjective bad faith (which judges are often loath to find) and allows consideration of both the objectively meritless nature of the claims and the methods used to litigate. That will make it easier for other Dream Teams to get attorney fees when censorious plaintiffs abuse the legal system to suppress speech.

Congrats to Paul Alan Levy and Gill Sperlein for this appellate win.

Satire Is Satire Even When People Fall For It, Mr. Jarvis

For years I've been trying to figure out who made this point: all satire is a shared joke between the writer and the reader at the expense of a hypothetical third person — the dupe — who takes it literally. The existence of that third person is a specifically contemplated feature, not a bug.

This is so both as a matter of law and as a matter of art.

Yesterday Esquire ran a satirical column in the voice of Jeff Jarvis. It's not up at Esquire any more, but you can see it here. The satire — penned by Rurik Bradbury, long-time Twitter satirist of Jarvis — mocked the pretense and vapidity of modern internet-changes-everything blather. To my taste, the satirical nature is quite clear:

The Innovation Party will be phablet-first, and communicate only via push notifications to smartphones. The only deals it cuts will be with Apple and Google, not with special interests. We will integrate natively with iOS and Android, and spread the message using emojis and GIFs, rather than the earth-killing longform print mailers of yesteryear. This will give us direct access to netizens, so we can be more responsive than any political party in history.

But tastes differ. Jeff Jarvis thought it was not clear and not permissible:


Esquire subsequently altered the piece to make the satire more explain-the-joke-to-you explicit, then axed it completely without explanation. Both Esquire and Jarvis have their supporters and detractors, and Jarvis wrote an angry post expressing outrage that he continues to be the object of satire.

There are many pieces of this. One is legal. That piece is very easy.

Bradbury's Esquire satire is very clearly protected by the First Amendment. I wrote about a case frighteningly on point. Esquire previously did a satirical article with mock quotes from Joseph Farah of WorldNet Daily and author Jerome Corsi. They sued, claiming defamation. The United States Court of Appeal for the D.C. Circuit crushed their arguments. Remember: only things that could reasonably be understood as provably false statements of fact can be defamatory. Satire is not a statement of fact. In deciding whether something could reasonably be taken as an assertion of fact rather than satire, courts look to what an audience familiar with the publication and players would understand. Said the Court:

The article’s primary intended audience — that is, readers of “The Politics Blog” — would have been familiar with Esquire’s history of publishing
satirical stories, with recent topics ranging from Osama Bin Laden’s television-watching habits to “Sex Tips from Donald Rumsfeld.” See Findikyan Decl. Exs. 35–42. At the same time, followers of “The Politics Blog” were politically informed readers.

. . . .

With that baseline of knowledge, reasonable readers of “The Politics Blog” would recognize the prominent indicia of satire in the Warren article.

In other words, the notion that Jarvis is silly and his views mockable may be inside baseball, but the relevant question is whether readers familiar with that inside baseball would recognize it.1

The fact that some people — inattentive people or people unfamiliar with the subject matter — may take the satire literally does not stop it from being satire. It's expected, the Court explained:

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).

Again, the joke is not only at the expense of Jeff Jarvis. The joke is, in part, at the expense of people who read carelessly. The joke is "Jeff Jarvis is silly, and by God, so is our society." The root of all comedy is human fallibility, and this article is funny in part because even though it's on a site known for satire by a frequent writer of satire in the voice of a frequent target of satire using exaggerated satirical arguments some people will still be inattentive, uninformed, or simply dumb enough to fall for it. That's why Jarvis's defenders are flat-out wrong when they say silly things like "It's the knowledge that something is satire that makes it satire in the first place."

Legally, this is not a close call.

What about morally? Jarvis and his supporters suggest that it's unethical for journalists to run satirical pieces written in somebody's name. It's not a new argument. Meghan McCain freaked out over apt satire of her writing voice. Visitors here occasionally become indignant over satire. People may get upset because satire written in the target's own voice is so effective against both of its targets. It illuminates the silliness of the person it is aping, and the more people fall for it the more powerful the argument that the mockery is on target. It strikes at the heart of the pretense of internet denizens – that they are well-informed and understand what the hell is going on.

Could there be satire that is unethical because it is genuinely deceptive? I suppose so. (Hopefully not here.) But I think it would have to be a genuine attempt to deceive by a publication not known for satire — something where the publication should expect that even reasonable inquiry and thought would not reveal it. This is not such a case. Esquire is known for satire. Bradbury is know for satirizing Jarvis and Jarvis is known for being satirized. The text of the satire was, well, overtly satirical. And as Bradbury told me, "[T]he bio stated specifically that this person was "not @Jeffjarvis", and the author photo was wearing both a beer helmet and a Santa hat, in late April.""

I don't think ethics prohibit a magazine known for satire from engaging in satire. I don't think ethics prohibit magazines from ridicule, even if that ridicule is part of a pattern. I don't think ethics require satirists to pitch to the lowest possible common denominator, to make their satire ABC-at-8:00-PM obvious. Ethics doesn't require catering to carelessness or foolishness or ignorance. If anything, it's unethical for the media to encourage those bad traits by dumbing down the ancient, deadly, and noble art of satire. One of the Bad Things about the internet is that people foolishly fail to exercise critical thinking about things they find on it. I don't share an ethical viewpoint that indulges and even encourages that trend.

Satire is a matter of taste. If Esquire decided this wasn't to their taste after all, that's their right, although the sequence of events makes them look foolish. But if Esquire caved to explicit or implicit legal threats, or to feckless arguments about journalistic ethics that undermine the very notion of satire, then shame on them.