Monday, May 23, 2005

There's a penalty for being offensive?

Thin-skinned sports anchor sues comic stripper

Talk about a frivolous lawsuit! (Membership required)

Bill Griffith of the Boston Globe reports:

Channel 4 sports anchor Bob Lobel has filed a libel suit against "Get Fuzzy" comic strip creator Darby Conley, United Feature Syndicate, and the New Bedford Standard-Times, seeking unspecified damages and "such other and further relief the court finds just and appropriate."

"It implies and asserts that Lobel is intoxicated when appearing on television. During his entire 34-plus-year career, Lobel has never appeared on the air intoxicated or under the influence of alcohol. The statement that Lobel is a drunk is false and is intended to injure him personally and professionally, and was made at a time when it was common knowledge that Lobel was in negotiations with his employer for a contract renewal."

Here's what I want to know: if Lobel is such an obvious professional, with decades of experience and acclaim in a large media market, then why would he assume that a comic strip's allegation of drunkenness would somehow tarnish him? No one who lives and works in the public eye for 34-plus years should expect a free ride.

The complaint further charges that "the matters referred to in the cartoon were made with actual malice by the defendants, their agents, servants, and employees, and were made with knowledge that the accusations were false, or were made with reckless disregard of whether they were false." [emphasis mine]

Ah, good old actual malice. This is a highly loaded term; "actual malice" is the toughest standard to prove in the court of law. By using it, Lobel is in effect establishing himself as a public figure. Which he is, because he's been on TV for 34 years. In layman's terms, actual malice means the defendant acted with intent to ruin someone's reputation by printing a deliberate lie. Public figures are considered ripe for press, satire and criticism in American law; thus, they have the most legal hurdles to cover when suing someone for defamation. Actual malice, then, is the barrier keeping every celebrity in America from suing the National Enquirer (or assorted blogs) on a daily basis. It also means Lobel's very likely to lose this lawsuit.

The website, which archives strips, including Get Fuzzy, has substituted a different strip in its May 13 file, and took down pages about the strip's author and its history.

If an incident like this is all it takes to completely destroy a syndicated artist's volume of work, then maybe I should hang on to my clips after all.

"Get Fuzzy" runs in more than 100 papers, including the Globe, where Lobel's name was changed to "him."

Shouldn't we at least have a chance to decide for ourselves whether or not the strip is objectionable?

"The Globe's action helps us," said Manion. ''The paper exercised editorial responsibility. If not, believe me, we would have sued them."

This sounds like extortion to me. Manion telling a Globe reporter that he would have sued them had they not censored themselves? I'd say something deservedly angry, but I'm afraid it would seep through his thin skin and he'd try to sue me also.

Actual libel is serious charge. I don't think it applies to a cartoonist who satirizes what is apparently a very visible quality of the anchorman:

[Lobel's] on-air demeanor mixes humor and news, and the occasional lapses of focus that have led to rumors that he may have been drinking before going on the air.

I wonder if they'll sue the Globe for that statement as well?

Said Manion: "I'm with him socially, at functions, and on the golf course. He's not a drinker."

Please understand, I don't give a damn whether Lobel is a completely sober and professional anchor or whether he gets sloshed before every broadcast. I also don't care what he does in his personal life. What I DO care about is the integrity of free speech, and hope that this lawsuit ends as it should: with its quick dismissal. For the sake of continued free speech in the United States, we cannot bow to the angry whims of the easily offended.


Flamingo Jones said...

I think the solution here is quite clear. The cartoonist should totally issue a public apology to Lobel for implying that he is drunk on camera.

Then he should make sure that Lobel appears in every subsequent strip, as a whiny baby with a diaper, a bottle that may or may not be filled with vodka, and a visible scar from the surgical procedure that removed his sense of humor.

No actual malice there.

Ian McGibboney said...

Oh yeah. Lobel should hope that Garry Trudeau doesn't get a whiff of this.