The Importance of Context

To be actionable as libel, a statement must reasonably imply false and defamatory facts when read in context. Context is important because the setting of the speech makes its nature apparent and helps determine how its intended audience would have interpreted the statement. In some cases, a literally false statement will not be actionable because contextual factors demonstrate that the true meaning of the statement is something other than what the words alone might suggest. In other words, the statement that a plaintiff must prove false to prevail in a defamation case is not necessarily the literal phrase published but rather what a reasonable reader would have understood the author to have said. In Farah v. Esquire Magazine, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit discussed the importance of these principles in a case involving political satire.

Jerome Corsi is the popular author of several New York Times bestsellers and the book “Where’s the Birth Certificate? The Case that Barack Obama is Not Eligible to be President” published by WND Books. Joseph Farah is the Editor and CEO of WND’s parent company, WorldNetDaily.com, a competitor of Esquire Magazine. On the day after “Where’s the Birth Certificate” was released, Esquire published an online article on “The Politics Blog” entitled “BREAKING: Jerome Corsi’s Birther Book Pulled from Shelves!” A copy of the Drudge Siren, a symbol of sensationalistic news, appeared above an image of the book’s cover. The article claimed that Farah had announced plans to recall and “pulp” the entire first run of the book and to refund purchaser’s money because three weeks earlier, Obama had produced his long form birth certificate indicating he was born in Hawaii. Later, Esquire published an update clarifying that the article was satirical, but the writer of the article referred to Corsi as an “execrable piece of shit” in an interview published on another online publication, The Daily Caller.

Farah and Corsi sued for defamation and other torts. According to the complaint, after the article was published, Farah received numerous requests for confirmation of the story and comment, and consumers began requesting refunds. The plaintiffs also claimed that they were attacked by book supporters and that book stores pulled the book from their shelves or refused to sell it. Farah and Corsi contended that Esquire only published the update after Farah indicated that he was exploring legal options and that the update was likewise false and defamatory. The district court granted Esquire’s motions to dismiss under both Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) and D.C.’s Anti-SLAPP Act, D.C. Code ยง 16-5501 et seq.

On a de novo review, the Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s dismissal of the complaint for failure to state a claim, declining to address the Anti-SLAPP issue. The court held that the article was protected political satire and that the update and writer’s comments were non-actionable statements of opinion. The court noted that the United States Supreme Court has repeatedly extended First Amendment protection to statements that do not reasonably state or imply defamatory falsehoods when read in context. Satire is a broad and complex genre that is sometimes funny and other times cruel and mocking or even absurd. The court gave the example of Jonathan Swift’s famous jonathanswift.jpgsatire “A Modest Proposal” in which he suggested killing and eating Irish children to solve the problem of Irish poverty. Although satirical speech is literally false, it enjoys First Amendment protection.

To qualify as defamatory, a plaintiff must prove not that the literal published phrase is false but that what a reasonable reader would have understood the author to have said is untrue. Satire is not actionable if it cannot reasonably be interpreted as stating actual facts. Farah and Corsi did not disagree that satire is protected, but they asserted that this attempt at satire was actionable because reasonable readers would take the fictitious blog post literally.

The court held that to determine how a reasonable reader would have understood a particular satirical statement, courts should assess the hypothetical reader’s “well-considered view,” formed after time for reflection, rather than her “immediate yet transitory reaction.” Thus, even if some actual readers don’t “get” the satire and mistake it for actual news, satire that, taken in context, would be understood (upon reflection) as satire by a reasonable reader, enjoys First Amendment protection and will not support a defamation action.

The court also noted that an article’s “indicia of satire” can be subtle. In this case, for example, the body of the article “did not employ the sort of imitation and exaggerated mimicry that are typical of parody.” The court explained that satire can incorporate a wide variety of literary forms and devices to achieve its intended effect, such as “ridicule, derision, burlesque, irony, parody, or caricature.” The fact that an article’s satirical nature may not be immediately obvious does not remove it from First Amendment protection.

Considering this particular article in context, the court held that a reasonable reader could not understand it to convey real news about the plaintiffs. The intended audience consisted of readers of “The Politics Blog” who would have been familiar with Esquire’s history of publishing satire. They were also politically informed readers who would have been familiar with WorldNetDaily and its positions on the birther controversy.

Reasonable readers would have recognized the signs of satire in the article such as the substance of the story itself, i.e., that Farah, a leader of the movement to challenge Obama’s eligibility to serve, had suddenly and without warning decided to recall and “pulp” Corsi’s book. The humorous and outlandish elements in the article also suggest satire. For example, the article claims Corsi wrote a book entitled “Capricorn One: NASA, JFK, and the Great ‘Moon Landing’ Cover-Up.” Additionally, the article contained quotes using foul language which would not likely appear in a serious news story. Stylistic details such as the exclamatory headline and the use of the Drudge Siren symbol similarly alerted readers that the article was not to be taken seriously.

The court held that because a reasonable reader could not understand the blog post to convey actual facts about the plaintiffs, it was not actionable as defamation. Rather, almost everything about the article indicated that it was political speech aimed at criticizing the plaintiffs’ public position on Obama’s eligibility to hold office. The article was protected by the First Amendment and the district court properly dismissed the defamation claim.

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