Saturday, September 04, 2004

Dodging a bullet

Way back on December 2 I posted about a bizarre libel suit filed against the Dallas Observer over a satire it had printed drawn from a case where a 7th grader had been imprisoned because a "scary story" for Halloween he'd written as a class assignment had involved accidentally shooting his teacher.

At that time, both the trial court and the Texas Court of Appeals had agreed with the plaintiffs, who were the judge in the case and the district attorney, that satire was not protected by the First Amendment "if it fails to make clear to its readers that it is not conveying actual facts," in the words of the Appeals Court.

I said at the time this was a
dangerous, dangerous situation. If Whitten and Isaacks prevail, it will effectively outlaw satire in Texas, because it's hard to imagine any satire worth the name would not unintentionally mislead someone into thinking it's true. Satire is by definition fiction - but it must be fiction that is close enough to the truth to create some glimmer of doubt or it collapses into mere ridicule,
citing Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" and Report from Iron Mountain as examples. Go to the original post for links.)

Well, we did indeed dodge a bullet on this one, according to AP for Saturday.
A news weekly's fictional article about a 6-year-old girl getting arrested over a book report was recognizable as satire and did not libel two officials involved in a similar real-life case, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday.

Under the 8-0 decision, Denton County Court-at-law Judge Darlene Whitten and District Attorney Bruce Isaacks will get nothing in their lawsuit against the Dallas Observer.

The weekly's 1999 article, headlined "Stop the Madness," parodied the judge's decision weeks earlier to jail a 13-year-old student for reading a graphic Halloween story in class. The fictional article was about a girl jailed for a school report on the Maurice Sendak picture book "Where the Wild Things Are."
Even though the decision rested on the argument that the piece was "recognizable as satire," which still leaves subtler pieces (such as those I cited) potentially unprotected, I still have to say thank goodness for small favors.

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