By: Susan Parrott, Associated Press Writer
(AP) A state appeals court has refused to dismiss a libel suit filed by two elected officials who claim a weekly alternative newspaper’s satirical story damaged their reputations.
Denton County Court-at-Law Judge Darlene Whitten and District Attorney Bruce Isaacks sued after the Dallas Observer published a November 1999 story in its news section about a first-grader jailed for a book report on Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.”
Reporter Rose Farley’s story was meant to poke fun at the judge’s actual decision several weeks earlier to jail a seventh-grader for five days because he read a graphic Halloween story to his class. The case received national media coverage.
So Farley imagined a second incident, quoting both plaintiffs. It was not labeled as satire but, Farley said Monday, “the story was written specifically to let the reader in on the joke.”
The judge is quoted in the parody as admonishing the girl, who wore “handcuffs and ankle shackles.”
“Any implication of violence in a school situation, even if it was just contained in a first-grader’s book report, is reason enough for panic and overreaction,” Whitten was quoted as saying in the parody. “It’s time for you to grow up, young lady, and it’s time for us to stop treating kids like children.”
The Second District Court of Appeals, in a decision earlier this month, said a reasonable reader could find the story believable and that satire is not protected under the First Amendment if it contains a substantially false and defamatory impression. “If an attempted satire or parody fails to make clear to its readers that it is not conveying actual facts, it may be defamatory,” the opinion stated.
A Dallas radio station and the student newspaper at the University of North Texas reported the story to be true. The Observer also received correspondence from readers who believed the article was true.
The Observer published a disclaimer of sorts the following week, and again several weeks later.
“It was a joke,” Managing Editor Patrick Williams wrote in a column. “We made it up.”
Editor Julie Lyons said the story was labeled as a satire on the newspaper’s Web site. “I thought it was obvious,” Lyons said. “There was no intention to deceive the public. I was surprised some people misunderstood that.”
Plaintiffs’ attorney Michael Whitten, who is married to the judge, said that when the newspaper refused his request for a retraction, he sued on behalf of his wife and Isaacks, who are seeking unspecified damages. Whitten said readers were misled by the story, which harmed his clients’ reputations.
“You can’t make up false facts and false quotes and attribute them so that reasonable people think it’s actual events,” he said. “Many readers just didn’t get it.”
The newspaper had sought to have the case dismissed in a county trial court. The paper may appeal to the Texas Supreme Court.