Jim Norton: Lessons from a “Chicken” defamation fight

Comedian Jim Norton and the Opie and Anthony show are two of a kind and when they come together, it may be wise to prepare oneself for a moment that may not be so ordinary. As it happens, Jim Norton is a stand-up comic who is known for pushing a tough line with foul-mouth remarks that draw blood; for its part, the Opie and Anthony radio show itself is a no-holds-barred arena. Their collaboration is something of a “perfect storm” for words that may hurt, sting and irritate; and a potential defamation lawsuit to boot. And that’s exactly what came to pass when Roy Den Hollander, a self styled “anti-feminist lawyer” sued Norton for defamation.

To be sure, Hollander is a gadfly Manhattan lawyer who is no stranger to controversy. He claimed he had called into the Opie and Anthony show in the hope of having an intelligent discussion of the merits of his lawsuit against Columbia University in which he was seeking to have the university abandon its women’s studies program. Earlier on, he had filed but lost a lawsuit in which he sought to have the nightclubs cancel their “Ladies Night” sessions.

But here’s what happened: During Hollander’s call-in participation on the Opie and Anthony show, hosted by Norton in 2009, an argument had broken out between the two. In the heat of their testy exchange, Norton berated Hollander as a “stupid” person and a “whore” who desired to have sex with a feathered fowl. According to Hollander, the most offensive remark made by Norton was the part where Norton said: “The chicken crossed the road because it thought that [Hollander] would try to f*ck it.” Ouch!

Not wanting to let things slide, Hollander filed a defamation lawsuit against Norton, seeking a half-million dollars in damages. In his suit, Hollander claimed that Norton’s crude remarks “held him up to public contempt and disgrace and caused him personal humiliation, mental anguish and suffering.”

For his part, Norton filed a motion asking the court to sanction Hollander for filing a baseless lawsuit and also for Hollander to pay Norton’s legal fees.
Sensing disaster ahead, Hollander decided to cut his losses and soon the parties settled the case, with each side agreeing to drop its demands against the other. Despite the settlement, Hollander insisted he would have won the case anyway, even though he said he believed the judge in the case was unsympathetic to his claim: “The judge wasn’t too favorable towards the case, so I decided to quit while I was ahead…I figured Norton’s learned his lesson and he won’t mouth off as much…you don’t always have to win a case to win a case.”

So, anyhow, the case settled. But could Hollander have won his defamation lawsuit against Norton? Not likely, and it was smart of him to quit when he did.

For starters, considering that their line of work requires comedians to make fun of other people and of the society itself, most people won’t be too surprised to find that a defamation lawsuit would be the most common occupational hazard for comedians. When a person sues somebody else for defamation, he pretty much would be claiming that his reputation in society has been injured or damaged by something the other person said about him. But to win his case, the person suing has to show that the person being sued made a “false statement of fact.” This means he cannot win his case if the statement is a statement of “opinion” rather than “fact.” Of course, if the statement happens to be “true,” then he cannot win, no matter how much damage the statement does to his reputation.

And since we are talking about damage to reputation in society, what matters in a defamation claim is what the society itself thinks: Would most reasonable people in society who hear the statement think of it as an expression of “fact” or just an “opinion”? As it happens, most people in society tend to understand comedians to be folks who make a “parody” of other people and the society itself just to draw a laugh. Certainly, not as people who are expressing facts. And it is mostly for this reason that suing a comedian for defamation is a pretty difficult business.

It is the rare occasion where a defamation lawsuit against a comedian succeeds – as happened this past July in Australia where the Channel Ten television station in Australia was fined for allowing a comedian named Mick Molloy to joke on the station’s football TV show Before the Game that a female politician named Nicole Cornes, who was married to a former football coach, had slept with a former football player. The Australian court accepted the claim that the broadcast was an attack on a woman’s “self-respect and dignity” and rejected the excuse that given the humorous context of the show, the joke was not meant to be taken literally. But that was Australia. In America, it would have been a more difficult case for her because of the First Amendment’s free speech provisions. Given that she is a politician, she probably would have been regarded as a “public official /public figure” and a tougher test called “actual malice” would have been applied to her case.

Long story short, one big lesson from the Norton case is that suing a comedian in defamation, as tempting as it may be, is no easy business, even with comedians as outrageous as Norton. But while that may be a lesson for everyday folks out there, most people would expect that somebody like Hollander, a controversial lawyer, who’s been around for a while with stuff like this, would already know that lesson. It is safe to say that Hollander’s defamation lawsuit against Norton is quite frivolous and as it happens, not a few people could see that: the judge in the case clearly saw that and Hollander himself knew that the judge saw that as well. The lawsuit was a boneheaded idea and Hollander could certainly have used his time better than that. Rather than teach Norton a lesson, as he claimed, it was Hollander himself, it seems, who had, quite surprisingly, forgotten an old lesson.

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