Jones Day, the third largest law firm on the planet, is focusing their weighty legal acumen and collective wrath upon the head of one lone Detroit-area blogger who dared to poke serious fun at their activities in the Detroit bankruptcy proceedings. Also found in the blogger’s sardonic cross hairs is one of the firm’s former associates, Kevyn Orr — aka, Detroit’s Emergency Manager — both parties are being scorched in parody by the outspoken blogger over their joint roles in looting the already decimated city coffers.
Business clients call to ask me to examine some review that was posted on-line, wanting to sue for defamation. When I advise them that the comments are permissible statements of opinion and not actionable defamation, the next question is almost always, “but can you at least send a cease and desist letter to make him take it down?”
No, I can’t, because it would be a toothless threat designed to intimidate someone out of exercising their right of free speech.
Apparently the law firm of Jones Day does not operate under the same standard, especially when its own ox is being gored. As you’ll see from the letter they sent, the firm claimed that a blogger could not use its name in order to criticize it. This is a common ploy, used in the hope that the recipient of the threatening letter won’t know any better. Free speech would be dead indeed if critics could not name the people and entities they are criticizing. Just as Stephen Colbert can use the name and even the logo of Domino’s Pizza in his parody news report, this blogger was free to use the name and logo of Jones Day, and any action by Jones Day would have been a clear SLAPP suit. Here is the letter that the Electronic Frontier Foundation sent in return, calling Jones Day’s bluff.
The Internet is an amazing source for both information and misinformation. One of the most telling examples was the case of Sarah Palin. A fictional question and answer session was written and published, with Palin purportedly making the comment that dinosaurs had roamed the earth just 5000 years ago. Many failed to realize (or chose not to recognize) the story was satire, and reported the dinosaur story as true. (Leading to an almost tearful Matt Damon proclaiming during an interview that she was not fit to serve because of her dinosaur beliefs.)
So-called traditional news sources cannot ignore what is posted on the Internet because it often is a breaking source for news; the commercial airline landing in the Hudson river being a recent example. But when parody is mistaken for truth, defamation can occur.
The cable show “Fox & Friends” reported a parody about a school principal as true. The real story was that a middle school student had left some ham on a table frequented by Muslim students. He was disciplined for his insensitivity. The parody took the story to an extreme, claiming that the school principal had instituted an “anti-ham response plan,” designed to teach the children that “ham is not a toy.” The hosts of Fox & Friends reported the parody as truth, and derided the principal for his overreaction. The principal sued for defamation in Levesque v. Doocy.
Fox & Friends was saved by New York Times v. Sullivan, the 1964 Supreme Court decision that created the “actual malice” standard for defamation against a public figure (also referred to as “New York Times actual malice”). But for the fact that the plaintiff was deemed to be a public figure, Fox would have been liable.