AAN Joins Amicus Brief in Texas Satire Case

AAN joined a “friend of the court” brief filed yesterday with the Texas Supreme Court in a case that, according to the brief, “presents a threat to the publishers or broadcasters of satirical or parodic works in the State of Texas.”

The case, New Times v. Isaacks, arose out of a libel suit filed against AAN member Dallas Observer by Denton County Judge Darlene Whitten and District Attorney Bruce Isaacks. The public officials alleged that they suffered damage as a result of “Stop the Madness,” a story published in the Observer that lampooned their decision to send a 13-year old to jail for writing a violent Halloween story as a class assignment. The plaintiffs claimed they were libeled because the story was not labeled satire.

In May 2002, a Texas appeals court declined to dismiss the case and Dallas Observer parent company New Times filed an appeal with the state’s highest court.

“Amici fear that, if not reversed, the court of appeals’s failure to treat ‘Stop the Madness’ as a constitutionally protected expression of editorial opinion will significantly chill the exercise by writers, artists, publishers, broadcasters, filmmakers, and others of the right to employ the time-honored tools of satire and parody as instruments of social and political commentary in works that could subject them to jurisdiction in Texas,” says the brief, which was written by attorneys from Weil, Gotshal & Manges. “The free exercise of that right requires courts to distinguish fanciful invention from factual falsehood and to recognize that intent to ridicule through resort to such fantasy is not actual malice.”

The brief also suggests “that a reasonable reader of the Observer would have realized that the article was jocular commentary,” and notes that the Observer, “typical of (other) alternative newspapers, speaks, with greater stylistic freedom than a daily newspaper, primarily to an audience of young, highly educated readers who are accustomed to questioning authority and would be more likely to discern the difference between factual reporting and satire.”

In addition to AAN, among the 16 organizations that signed onto the brief were non-profit organizations like Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Magazine Publishers of America, Motion Picture Association of America, Newspaper Association of America and the National Cable Television Association, as well as for- profit interests like AOL Time Warner’s Cartoon Network and media conglomerate Viacom.

The case is scheduled to be argued before the Texas Supreme Court on December 3.

To download a PDF file of the amicus brief, click here.