Free Speech Rogues and Freaks: An Analysis of Amusing and Bizarre Litigants of Free Expression

By Hale, F. Dennis | Communications and the Law, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Free Speech Rogues and Freaks: An Analysis of Amusing and Bizarre Litigants of Free Expression


Hale, F. Dennis, Communications and the Law


The major justification for this study was that bizarre and amusing court cases are compelling, memorable and instructive. They dramatically illustrate many of the legal principles of freedom of speech and freedom of press. The ridiculous, the absurd and the exaggerated often clarify what is complex and elusive. Consider the drawings of political cartoonists Jim Borgman, Doug Marlotte and Dick Wright. And consider the satirical columns of humorists Art Buchwald, Calvin Trillin, and Mike Royko. These cartoonists and columnists can clarify a perplexing issue with a satirical drawing or narrative.

Consider an important legal concept such as perjury, which is the willful testimony of false information. What is the best way to illuminate such a deceptively simple doctrine? You could study a civil case such as Unique Realty Consultants v. Richard S. Lowe (1) in which an alleged perjury caused the loss of an $8,994 sales commission on a $149,900 house in Licking County in Ohio.

Or, you could study Paula Corbin Jones v. William Jefferson Clinton, in which the sitting president of the United States was accused of the sexual harassment of a state employee when he was the Arkansas governor. Federal District Court Judge Susan Webber Wright assessed President Clinton $1,300,000 in damages for his evasive testimony in the Jones case concerning his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinski. The deposed president had denied that he ever was alone with Lewinsky: "I have no specific recollection, but it seems to me that she was on duty on a couple of occasions working for the legislative affairs office and brought me some things to sign, something on the weekend. That's--I have a general memory of that." (2)

If you are attempting to understand the intricacies of perjury, what court case would you prefer to study: the conflicting claims of an Ohio real estate agent and a home seller, or the inconsistent testimony of a dynamic president of the United States about his extracurricular activities in the Oval Office?

Freedom of expression traditionally has involved individuals and messages that are startling or unusual. Communications law often has been defined by court cases with extreme and aberrant situations that were used to expand existing doctrines or to create new legal principles to protect expressive rights. A sizeable body of First Amendment law has been created by obnoxious persons or organizations such as Hustler magazine and its publisher Larry Flynt, the Reverend Jerry Falwell, Jehovah's Witnesses, Hare Krishnas, Ku Klux Klan chapters, and other militants and true believers. It is stimulating to study freedom of expression through a lens tinted by the salacious, the shocking or the crude.

Another justification for this study was pedagogical. The analysis of bizarre and amusing cases provides new material for courses in mass media law, broadcast law, intellectual property law, and communications law. Such courses benefit from the examination of cases that are instructive while they are entertaining.

The last justification for this article concerned the study of the field of humor. Amusing anecdotes from the real world provide the grist for a substantial amount of humor. Comedian and social critic Will Rogers once observed: "I guess it wouldn't be very humorous if it wasn't for government. I don't make up jokes, I just watch the government and report the facts." (3) Facts from courtrooms generate raw material for humor because court testimony often exposes the raw edges of polite society. Free expression cases should generate as much humorous material as other kinds of court cases. Thus the cases in this study provided an additional opportunity for an exploration of the interaction between the world of courts and the world of humor.

REVIEW OF LITERATURE

This study is relevant to the literature of humor and the law which includes works of popular culture.

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Free Speech Rogues and Freaks: An Analysis of Amusing and Bizarre Litigants of Free Expression
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