Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
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The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York (Second Department) dismissed a claim for damages on the grounds that statements made during the “Fast Frank Feature” sketch comedy segment of the television show “Saturday Night Live” were purely humorous, had no malicious intent and could not be taken seriously by any person. Plaintiff Maurice Frank was a tax consultant who found defamatory a humorous segment entitled “Fast Frank Feature” on the television show “Saturday Night Live” in which an actor pretending to be a tax specialist –who used the same name as the plaintiff– gave hilarious and absurd advice. The court found that the content of the segment was humorous and had no malicious intent to ridicule the plaintiff. Furthermore, it noted that the context in which the “Fast Frank Feature” segment was broadcast, within a humorous television program, did not allow any person to take seriously the advice given in the comedy sketch.
In November 1984, Maurice Frank filed a lawsuit for damages claiming that two broadcasts of the humorous segment “Fast Frank Feature” on the television program “Saturday Night Live” were defamatory. The suit was brought against producers Richard Ebersol and Lorne Michaels, broadcaster National Broadcasting Company, Inc., and actor Tim Kazurinsky.
Plaintiff Maurice Frank was a professional “engaged in business as an accountant, tax consultant and financial planner” [para. 3]. Maurice Frank found defamatory a segment aired on “Saturday Night Live” on April 14, 1984 –and repeated nationwide on April 14, 1984–, exactly one day before the general deadline for filing U.S. income tax returns.
The plaintiff argued that in the sketch a “performer was introduced to the audience as a tax consultant with the same name as the plaintiff, Maurice Frank. The performer allegedly bore a ‘noticeable physical resemblance’ to the plaintiff. This character then gave purported tax advice which the plaintiff described in his complaint as ‘ludicrously inappropriate’” [para. 6].
Maurice Frank found the following monologue defamatory:
“Thank you. Hello. Look at your calendar. It’s April 14th. Your taxes are due tomorrow. You could wind up with your assets in a sling. So listen closely. Here are some write-offs you probably aren’t familiar with — courtesy of ‘Fast Frank’. Got a houseplant? A Ficus, a Coleus, a Boston Fern — doesn’t matter. If you love it and take care of it — claim it as a dependent. Got a horrible acne?…use a lotta Clearasil…that’s an Oil-Depletion Allowance. You say your wife won’t sleep with you? You got withholding tax coming back. If she walks out on you — you lose a dependent. But…it’s a home improvement — write it off. Should you happen, while filling out your tax form, to get a paper cut — thank your lucky stars — that’s a medical expense and a disability. Got a rotten tomato in your fridge? Frost ruined your crops — that’s a farm loss. Your tree gets Dutch Elm Disease…Sick leave — take a deduction. Did you take a trip to the bathroom tonight? If you took a trip…and you did business — you can write it off. Wait, there’s more. Did you cry at ‘Terms of Endearment?’ That’s a moving expense. A urologist who’s married to another urologist can file a joint return. Got a piece of popcorn stuck between your teeth?… Or a sister who drools on her shoes?… You got money comin’ back — and I can get it for you fast because I’m Fast Frank. Call me. I have hundreds of trained relatives waiting to take your call. At Fast Frank’s, we guarantee your refund will be greater than what you earned” [para. 7, 8 , 9 and 10].
The defendants argued that the comedy sketch on the television program “Saturday Night Live” was broadcast as part of a “segment known as the ‘Saturday Night News,’ the name of which implies a parody of standard, televised news broadcasts.” [para. 5]. In this sense, the defendants considered that no one could take seriously the content of the humorous segment, nor that injurious imputations were being made to the plaintiff.
Justice Kooper, J., delivered the opinion of the court. The central issue to be decided by the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division (Second Department) was whether statements made during the “Fast Frank Feature” comedy sketch on the television show “Saturday Night Live” could be considered defamatory and give rise to reparations, or whether they were humorous expressions that did not give rise to a right to compensation.
First, Judge Kooper held that the court had to “address the question of when humor or joking at the expense of an identifiable private person becomes defamation. This is an issue that has arisen on rare occasions in New York appellate courts since the turn of the century, and never at all with respect to the medium of television. The principal issue, in this case, is whether the plaintiff’s amended complaint against the producers and broadcaster of the late-night comedy show ‘Saturday Night Live’ states a cause of action for defamation” [para. 5].
Further, Judge Kooper held that the plaintiff must prove that the statements made on the “Fast Frank Feature” segment of the “Saturday Night Live” program “tended to expose him to public contempt, ridicule, aversion or disgrace, or induce an evil opinion of him in the minds of right-thinking persons, and to deprive him of their friendly intercourse in society” [para. 12]. Next, Judge Kooper found that even assuming that the defendants did in fact intend to portray plaintiff Maurice Frank in their “Fast Frank Feature” segment, such a circumstance does not automatically produce a right to compensation.
The judge held that “the court must determine, in the first instance, whether the words complained of are reasonably susceptible of a defamatory connotation” [para. 15]. The judge remarked that for a defamation claim to be dismissed the court must determine that the language challenged by the plaintiff cannot be characterized as defamatory as a matter of law. Under these premises, the judge determined “if the instant action is to be dismissed, we must first find, as a matter of law, that the ‘Fast Frank Feature’ was not susceptible of a defamatory meaning.” [para. 15].
Furthermore, Judge Kooper considered that in defamation cases courts must reconcile an individual’s interest in protecting his or her good name with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Furthermore, he recalled that in the case of “opinions,” the First Amendment protection approaches the absolute. However, he remarked that the terms “humor and comedy” are not synonymous nor should they be assimilated to the term “opinion.” The judge held that humor and comedy, as forms of expression, never received absolute First Amendment protection. In this regard, he stated that “the danger implicit in granting blanket protection to humor or comedy should be obvious, for surely a person’s reputation can be destroyed as effectively and completely by ridicule as by any false statement of fact. The principle is clear that one person should not be allowed to assassinate the reputation of another in jest” [para. 17].
On the other hand, Judge Kooper explained that “not every humorous article, comic routine or old-fashioned performance will subject its author or performer to liability for defamation” [para. 18]. In turn, he stated that courts have frequently rejected claims for damages for defamation against statements that were patently humorous. On this point, the judge remarked that “the main factors distinguishing humorous comments that are defamatory from those that do not appear to be whether the statements were intended to hurt as well as amuse and whether they give rise to an impression that they are true” [para. 19].
In accordance with the above, Judge Kooper expressed that in this type of case, the context in which the humorous expressions were uttered must be considered. With this in mind, the judge held that “in the present case, it can also be stated without hesitation that no sensible person could take the alleged tax advice of ‘Fast Frank’ seriously. If anything, the assertions here are even more clearly the obvious product of a comic imagination” [para. 22].
Likewise, the judge added that the subject of income taxes and the persons connected with their collection and preparation have been a source of comic imagination since their establishment in the United States. In this regard, the judge stated that “no person who has had the dubious pleasure of filling out a federal 1040 tax form would believe, in his wildest fantasies, that he could claim his favorite Boston fern as a dependent. There is no person so gullible as to believe that his acne medication entitles him to an oil depletion allowance, or that a spouse’s departure from the marital home can be listed as a deductible home improvement” [para. 22].
For all those reasons, judge Kooper concluded that “the statements challenged here were so extremely nonsensical and silly that there is no possibility that any person hearing them could take them seriously. Nor were the statements themselves so malicious or vituperative that they could cause a person hearing them to hold the claimant in public contempt, ridicule, dislike or disgrace”[para. 23]. The judge emphasized that “the lunacy of the statements themselves, presented as a small comic part of a larger and obviously humorous entertainment program, coupled with the fact that they were neither a malicious nor a vituperative personal attack, requires a finding that they were not defamatory as a matter of law. On the contrary, in this case it is precisely that type of humor which is of a personal kind that provokes laughter and leaves no sting, and therefore cannot form the basis of a claim” [para. 23].
Judges Weinstein J.P, Lawrence and Kunzeman J.J concurred in full with Judge Kooper’s vote and rationale.
For all the reasons stated above, the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court (Second Department) dismissed Maurice Frank’s complaint.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The decision of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York (Second Department) expands freedom of speech by rejecting a claim for damages against the television program “Saturday Night Live” on the grounds that the content of a purely humorous segment could not be considered defamatory. The Court held that because the content of the segment entitled “Fast Frank Feature” was entirely humorous and had no malicious intent to ridicule anyone, it could not give rise to damages for defamation. In this sense, the court protected humorous or satirical expressions from claims for damages when it can be understood from the context in which they were broadcasted that they are merely humorous.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
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This case did not set a binding or persuasive precedent either within or outside its jurisdiction. The significance of this case is undetermined at this point in time.
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