Sunda Croonquist: Comedy and the First Amendment

Sunda Croonquist
Sunda Croonquist

Thanks to the First Amendment which protects the right to free speech, America is the best place a comedian could make a living. Just ask comedian Sunda Croonquist: On April 30, she won a court battle against some family members who sought to punish her for her “shtick”.

Comedians, especially stand-ups like Croonquist, make a living by making us laugh and the risk of provoking people with their shtick is usually something of an occupational hazard in their world. And there is no shortage of folks who would rather the comedians shut the hell up. Take the mobster who roughed up Jimmy Brogan at New York’s Catch a Rising Star comedy club in the 1970s (“You think you’re funny, Kid?”). Or the media execs who would yank comedy shows from their networks for causing offense to politicians or people of faith. Recall the controversy surrounding CBS’ cancellation of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1969.

Aside from people who might beat them up or ruin their careers for what they say, comedians also face pressures from folks who just might sue them for a tort called “defamation.” A tort happens when somebody does a wrongful act to another person without having a good excuse for that. In defamation, the person suing the comedian would be saying that what the comedian has said about that person has lowered that person’s “reputation” in the eyes of other people in the community. Of all the scares comedians face in their work, the hassle from defamation actions are probably the most serious, because the folks who sue them in order to protect their reputation are doing something the law allows them to do. (To beat up a comedian for what they are saying may land you in trouble for assault; and to cancel a TV show just because of its shtick could perhaps open the door to a lawsuit for wrongful termination.)

But the good news is that it is much harder for a comedian to get in trouble for defamation in a place like America than in pretty much any place else, especially when “public figures” are concerned. A person is considered a public figure either because the person is a public official or because the person is somebody in the public eye, like a celebrity. In dishing out their jokes about people, comedians really do enjoy picking on public figures and they get big laughs from audiences when they do so.

Yet, for a public figure to win a defamation case against a comedian (or anybody else for that matter), it is not even enough to show that the statement happens to be false. The public figure suing the comedian must show that the comedian made the false statement on purpose or that the comedian was so “out to get” the public figure that the comedian simply didn’t care when he was making the statement that the statement probably was not true.

But Sunda Croonquist was sued for defamation not by public figures but by family members (her mother-in-law, sister-in-law and brother-in-law).

Two years ago, these family members sued her in federal court in New Jersey, claiming that her “shtick” which jokes about her life as a half-black, half-Swedish woman married to a Jewish family, had exposed them to public ridicule. One of the jokes that really pissed them off was the one where Croonquist joked that her sister-in-law’s voice sounded like that of a “cat-in-heat.”

So, why did she still win? Again, she won because the First Amendment has pretty large wings. When a private person files a defamation action against a comedian, the person must show that the comedian presented his false statements as “facts” instead of “opinions”. This means that the person cannot win if ordinary people listening to the comedian would understand the comedian to be expressing just an “opinion.” And here’s the rub: when comedians serve up their “shtick” most people would not think they are talking about “facts” and serious matters. Usually, people suing comedians are told to “lighten up” because the comedians are just making jokes to draw a laugh.

The law on free speech has been around for awhile and it would have been easy to predict that Croonquist would win her case. One big lesson from it all though is that living in a free society can also be uncomfortable sometimes, especially when we may not like to hear what the law allows other people to be able to say. Like comedians on a roll during a shtick. With protections like these, who can deny that the First Amendment may be the comedian’s best friend?

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