John Merrifield and Public Safety: Putting Satire on Trial?

Satire is a well-recognized institution in our society and culture and public safety is, well, a necessity. And they each travel in their lanes. But when these two lanes happen to cross paths how do we manage the encounter so we can allow them to continue to co-exist in our world?  This is the tricky question at the heart of the legal battle between the New York-based comedian John Merrifield and Josh Guillory, the mayor of the City of Lafayette Consolidated Government in Louisiana.  

But first here’s the story:

In summer 2020 the comedian created two fake events on his Facebook page announcing planned protests by ANTIFA (militant left-wing activists who oppose far right groups) in two Lafayette, Louisiana locations, one in the high-end community of River Ranch in July and the other at the Acadiana Mall in August. In response the city government deployed a large number of police officers, vehicles and other resources to both locations to tackle the situation. However, since the whole thing was a hoax, no protests in fact occurred at either location.

Later that summer, the city sued the comedian to recoup its purported expenses, claiming that the “hoaxes have cost the city considerable sums of money both in investigating and responding to the hoaxes.”  The city’s said expenses were tallied at less than $75, 000.

In a defiant response, the comedian refused to apologize and vowed to fight the lawsuit, claiming that his actions were merely those of a satirist and comedian who created satire events on a comedy meme page on two occasions. “Fool you once shame on me. Fool you twice shame on you,” he noted.  Merrifield, who is a Lafayette native, explained that he meant to highlight how police treat some groups differently and “fail to offer the same protections to the working poor and mentally ill people of color such as in the case of Trayford Pellerin’s execution.” (The week before the date of the second event in August, protests had taken place at the Acadiana Mall, over the police killing of Pellerin, a Black man.)        

So, what is the deal here, with what the comedian did? Is this allowable “satire” , under the First Amendment, as he claims or is it some sort of mischief intended by the comedian to cost the city some money, as the city’s lawsuit suggests?

As we commonly understand it in our society, a work of “satire” uses humor as a vehicle to critique, ridicule or scorn the actions of someone or some institution in the society; as a result, most acts of satire tend to have the purpose and effect of correcting the behavior of the person or institution that is the target of the satire.

Merrifield said that he intentionally worded the announcement in such a way that “anyone with discernment” would know it is a joke and that no reasonable person would think otherwise. The said event post invited only “card-carrying” ANTIFA members and also said things like “arms optional, legs encouraged.”

For its part, the city admitted that it knew ahead of time that the whole ANTIFA affair was a hoax but deployed the law enforcement resources anyway even though no actual protests were occurring on any of the two event days in question. The city also said that the officers who were deployed to the scenes were on their regular duties rather than any special duty connected to the planned protests. If this is all there is to all this, then it’s game over since the two sides can be said to be on the same page: the comedian intended his post to be understood as a joke and apparently the city did in fact understand it as a hoax by a comedian.

Except that the city offers some explanations for its actions; it said it was acting in response to phone calls from allegedly “concerned citizens” who believed the planned protests were real rather than fake (the city also referenced the comedian’s own mother as one of those who actually believed the planned event was real). Additionally, the city said that it chose to deploy police to the scene in order to pre-empt the actions of any counter-protesters at the planned event (here the city references the posts put out by right wing group Right Side Millennials who were threatening to oppose the planned event.)  

Given all this, the big question in this case is whether the actions of the city were “reasonable” under the circumstances, considering everything it know at the time.  If the answer to that question is yes, then the city’s odds of winning the lawsuit increases. Here’s another way to look at it: if the city had not taken the steps that it took, would the city have been considered “negligent” in not doing so. (In common parlance, “negligence” here means the city not taking proper or necessary precautions to safeguard public safety in the circumstances then existing.)  If the steps taken by the city are perceived as justified in the eyes of a “reasonable person” looking at the circumstances faced by the city at the time, then the city might have a remedy against the comedian, including, for instance, recouping its expenses from the situation.

If that is the case, it likely won’t help the comedian too much to say that his actions were intended as satire. The simple reason here is a practical one: under the law, public safety, just like public health, trumps humor. (Recall, for instance, all the lockdowns and other restrictions imposed on so-called non-essential businesses, including comedy clubs, during the Covid-19 pandemic on grounds of public health and safety.) The other possible problem for the comedian here is that his attempted satire is not your grandfather’s good old satire that stays within our traditional understanding of satire. In other words, it’s not like a cartoon or some similar critique of a person or a thing, but instead his actions were rather more aggressive with potentially practical consequences. In a manner of speaking, maybe he was somewhat more activist than critic.  

Yet the saving grace for Merrifield is that, by its own admission, the city did in fact understand his posts as a “hoax” that was not real. Plus, there were indeed no actual protests at any of the two locations of concern to the city which, by the way has admitted that the presence of its police officers and sheriffs at those locations was done as part of their regular duties rather than as a special effort to safeguard public safety in response to the situation created by the protests. Since a case like this one turns upon a balancing of the facts and circumstances of the case, it therefore seems likely that the actions of the city will not be considered as “reasonable” or “justified” under the circumstances.   The city is only allowed to do what is reasonable rather than what is overly cautious under the circumstances it faced at the time. If the city overshoots the mark in its assessment of the situation beyond what a reasonable person would do, then the comedian cannot be liable for the city’s error of judgment.

All things considered, the odds of winning in this case seem to tip clearly on the comedian’s side.  And so, one may wonder whether pursuing a lawsuit against a struggling comic who probably isn’t a deep pocket is the best use of the city’s time and resources at a time that the pandemic is still around. However, one plausible way to explain this situation is that by forcing Merrifield to spend money defending the lawsuit, Josh Guillory’s city (as the richer party) might be looking to teach the comedian a lesson not to “mess with” the city.  Such a game plan will be aiming to set up a “teachable moment” on the acceptable boundaries of satire in contemporary society. Needless to say, these are pretty interesting times in satire.  

Editor’s NoteAt the moment the author is seriously working hard to finish writing a new book on a rather tight deadline. So please bear with us if upcoming posts do not appear as regularly as they should during this, hopefully, quite short period. However, in the meantime, please do dig into the many other posts contained in the archives, which are readily available for your reading pleasure. There are two “categories” of articles: “Comedy Legal” and “Other Controversies.” You can find all of them at the “Categories” box on the sidebar. Please keep reading!

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