Queen of Soul v. Internet Humorists: Satire v. Defamation In The Age Of Memes & Humor Websites

satire defamation aretha franklin
A recent lawsuit filed by Aretha Franklin raises the question of satire and defamation.

A doozy of a celebrity defamation lawsuit is taking shape. To be clear, this libel lawsuit will not get far; it will not pass GO, nor will the plaintiff collect any money.

But when the Queen of Soul – (Millennial Decoder: Aretha Franklin) — drops a $10 million defamation lawsuit against geek-centric satire site The News Nerd, the moment cannot pass without acknowledgment.

In a way, the debacle is more than just a celebrity defamation of character suit; it’s a generational libel clash of the entertainment titans. Call it, Old School Crooner v. New School Satire.

The Satirical Article That Resulted In A Defamation Lawsuit

So what was the “article” that shook Franklin’s r-e-s-p-e-c-t? Try:

“Patti LaBelle Arrested After Fist Fight with Aretha Franklin”

The story went viral and at last count was viewed by over 40,000 eyeballs.

“Get a sense of humor, Aretha,” right? Sure. But, let’s, for a second, try to look at things through Ms. Franklin’s eyes – her 72-year-old eyes.

Satire & Defamation: What Counts As “Reasonable” In The Age Of Subtle Memes and “Barely There” Satire

Skepticism is a mainstay of of the Gen-X, -Y and Millennial personality. And that’s not an repudiation; hey, when you’ve been around the Internet the majority of your life, you tend not to believe everything you read online; you quickly develop a sixth sense for what is and what is not a satire website.

But not everyone does – and “barely there” Internet satire is not something “a reasonable” 60- or 70-year-old may immediately recognize as such.

Human Guinea Pig Experiment on In-Law: Can A Sexagenarian Spot The Online Satire?

To test my generational satire theory, I decided to conduct an imperfect experiment with a sexagenarian relative. Without explanation, I showed her the article in question. Predictably, her eyes widened, her jaw dropped, and after she had devoured the last morsel of “news,” breathlessly, she turned to me and said, “Wow! Who knew Aretha was so violent!”

And who could blame my unwitting human guinea pig? To the untrained eye, The News Nerd looks a whole lot like a legitimate news site. And even though the website dons a disclaimer declaring it a work of fiction, the notice is on the far right bottom of the page – where the average reader may never look. Moreover, the piece is written like a straight news piece. Not a hint of sarcasm is present. The lack of tongue-in-cheek is so glaring, it makes one wonder: what, exactly, was the author satirizing or parodying?

(Actually, the more I think about it, this silly suit may cause NewsNerd a teeny bit of heartburn if it ends up in front of the “wrong” judge. Franklin, most likely, will never win, but a judge with certain leanings may let it play out for a bit to prove a point.)

Franklin’s publicist, Gwendolyn Quinn, released a statement regarding the celebrity defamation of character suit. Quinn explained that the Queen of Soul did not get the joke. “It was presented as a serious news story intended to depict [Aretha] in a slanderous and derogatory way,” lamented Team Franklin.

Satire or Defamation? In This Case Satire Will Most Probably Prevail

Again, the chances of Franklin winning this satire defamation suit are between slim and none. After all, a disclaimer on every page of the News Nerd reads, “The stories posted on TheNewsNerd are for entertainment purposes only. The stories may mimic articles found in the headlines, but rest assured they are purely satirical.”

That said, the case does raise a pair of questions:

  1. With satire becoming more and more mainstream, subtle, and arguably a valid form of news delivery (see The Colbert Report), can it (satire) ever be defamatory despite culturally engrained Constitutional protections?
  2. What are the legal implications if “a reasonable person” can’t distinguish fact from satire?

Perhaps these are questions the courts will have to re-visit for the Internet Age.

Speak With A Satire Defamation Attorney

Are you considering suing for satire defamation and wondering if you have a case or not? If yes, get in touch with Kelly / Warner Law soon. The statute of limitations is not that long when it comes to defamation, so the longer you wait, the less chance you have of having a viable case.

Let's Talk » »
Legal Disclaimer | Privacy Policy | Terms of Service
© 2017 Kelly Warner Law PLLC. All Rights Reserved.
800: 1-866-570-8585
Office: 480-588-0449