Promoting Comedy in the Public Forum: Learning the Tricky Ropes

As democracies go, America is a haven for the practice of comedy thanks to the First Amendment which protects the right of free speech. And, in this area, public forums are very important, especially those venues provided by the government, which are often the venues with the largest audiences for many a speaker. Yet, access to those venues is neither as free nor as guaranteed by law as the right to free speech itself. Indeed, often times people erroneously assume that easy access to a public forum is something of a matter of course. Wrong

On closer examination, a lot of folks, comedians included, have been surprised to find that there are quite a bit of rules or regulations (principles, if you will) that govern someone’s right of access to speak at a public forum.

By the way, comedians might be interested to note here that “speech” in this context includes not just things that are said at an actual show but also things that are written or said in the process of advertising a show or event, say, on billboards or posters.

As a general rule, what one can say on a particular public forum depends on what sort of forum the place is, namely, whether it is a traditional public forum or a “designated” or limited public forum. With traditional public forums, such as public parks and street corners, life is easy and you can think of those places as free speech highways where all manner of speech is allowed, both political and ideological and non-political speech, which includes commercial speech like advertising and the like. In these forums, the government cannot restrict or deny or speech based on the “content” of that speech, meaning, for instance, that it cannot decide to allow commercial speech but ban religious speech. Nope!

In order for the government to do so, it must show not only that it had a “compelling” interest or reason restricting or denying speech but also that it had no other means available to it to achieve the same result in a manner that would have had less impact on the speech in question. Lawyers call this the “strict scrutiny” rule, the whole point of which is to make it very difficult for the government to mess around with any of the “protected” rights under the constitution.

(Note that although the government isn’t allowed to ban or restrict any constitutionally “protected” speech it is nevertheless allowed to regulate the time, place and manner of exercising the right.)

Then there are the “designated” or limited public forums, such as subways and buses, which are places where the government can choose what sort of speech to allow and which ones to prohibit. Government can choose, for instance, to ban political speech while allowing commercial speech. But as long as it has opted to allow commercial speech, it cannot then start to discriminate between commercial speeches on the basis of “viewpoint.”  In other words, the government’s actions in restricting or denying speech in such situations must be “viewpoint- neutral and reasonable,” meaning that it cannot, for example, treat similar speeches differently.

For comedians and other entertainers who frequently need to publicize their shows in the public forum, the limited public forums are the ones that appear to raise the trickiest questions.

In the ordinary case, an ad by, say, a computer store on a city bus is a straightforward business promotion and often goes off without a hitch. However, problems might arise where what is said in an ad, for instance, can be perceived as “political” in nature and/ or controversial and thus banned. And this is where comedians can sometimes run into unexpected difficulties with exercising their free speech in such public forums.

Perhaps one of the more interesting cases here is the one involving some Muslim comedians who in September 2014 wanted to advertise their documentary film The Muslims Are Coming through the use of posters in the New York City subway system operated by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). The said movie, produced one year earlier, follows some Muslim-American comedians on their tour of American towns and cities and their interactions with the audiences.

 The various poster ads contained the link to the movie’s website as well as various comic statements, including things like “Muslims Hate Terrorists”; “They also hate”: ‘People who tell you they went to an Ivy League School within 10 seconds of meeting them;’ ‘When the deli guy doesn’t put enough schmear on the bagel;’ ‘Getting out that last bit of toothpaste from the tube.’ The ads also contained statements like “Those Terrorists are all Muslim [the word “Muslim” is crossed out] Nutjobs,” “Grown up Muslims can do more pushups than baby Muslims” and so on.  The six ads were scheduled to run over a one -month period in 144 ads across the city’s subways. But the MTA rejected the proposed ads on the grounds that the ads violated its newly adopted policy which allowed commercial speech while barring the use of its facilities for “political” speech.

However, the comedians Dean Obeidallah and Negin Farsad plus the ad’s producer Vaguely Qualified Productions sued the MTA and won big in federal court. In siding with the comedians, the court ruled instead that the ads were essentially “commercial” speech by a for-profit entity and that it was remained so even if the advertiser might have been trying to capitalize on the political controversy around Islamophobia to promote its business interest. (At the time in question, the right-wing activist Pamela Geller’s group the American Freedom Defense Initiative [AFDI] was reportedly running an anti-Muslim ad in the said subways, depicting a man in a headscarf plus the incendiary words “Killing Jews is Worship that Draws Us Close to Allah.” The Muslim comedians claimed they were simply trying to counter the possible cultural impact of that campaign.)

Furthermore, the court said that even if the ads could be considered as “political” speech, the MTA had engaged in “viewpoint discrimination” given that it had already allowed other ads on its platform that were arguably even more political in nature than the comedians’ ads in this case, such as cable TV station CNN’s ad about the GOP presidential debate which contained photos and quotes by the candidates.  In other words, the court found that the MTA, which offered its subways and buses as a limited public forum for speech, was treating similar things differently in violation of the principle of “viewpoint-neutrality.”

So, what are some of the lessons here? Well, for starters, the less political speech that are contained in ads for a show, the easier life will be for the comedian. Obviously, things can get tricky when the ads straddle the political and the commercial lanes of traffic: in such situations, the authorities might be tempted to use the excuse of stopping political speech to perhaps ban the ads of a rather controversial comedian they might not like. (This is arguably what the MTA was trying to do in the Muslim comedians’ case, as the court implied.)  The other thing is that when it comes to ads and free speech, life is easiest in classic public forums like public parks and streets where the test is “strict scrutiny”; things get a little hard in limited public forums like subways and buses; and even harder in nonpublic forums like public schools, public hospitals or even jail houses. With all that in mind, the good news, though, is that even in the forums that are less friendly to free speech, such as the limited or nonpublic forums, there is still the protection of the First Amendment in requiring that there be no viewpoint discrimination. In any event, ads containing statements or images that might be considered as “obscene” or statements that amount to “fighting words” or which could be viewed as “incitement to violence” are not protected under the First Amendment regardless of the forum involved.     

Fighting The Daily Stormer: When a Comedian Sues a Rogue

When a comedian sues a non-comedian for damaging his reputation, one can expect the sort of unusual scenario where ‘the usual suspects’ become the ones trying to restore sanity. So, as the hunter becomes the hunted and people wonder just how well the shoe will fit on the other foot, the recent case of Muslim comedian, lawyer and left-wing political commentator Dean Obeidallah against the controversial right-wing neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer offers us a window into the reality of that tricky situation. But first, here’s what happened:

 This past June, Obeidallah, a SiriusXM radio host wrote a piece in The Daily Beast in which he queried why President Donald Trump wouldn’t use the phrase “white supremacist terrorism” to describe the activities of right wing extremists. According to Obeidallah, the defendant website responded by fabricating tweets that appeared to have been written by Obediallah himself and posting an article titled” Dean Obeidallah, Mastermind Behind Manchester Bombing, Calls on Trump to Declare Whites the Real Terrorists.” This was then followed by a torrent of online abuses directed at Obeidallah including even death threats. Incidentally, Obeidallah and The Daily Stormer appear to be old enemies.  Two years earlier, Obeidallah had written another piece in The Daily Beast in which he urged the GOP to disavow the growing support that then-presidential candidate Trump was receiving from right-wing extremist groups including (you guessed it!) The Daily Stormer.

In his lawsuit against The Daily Stormer and its publishers, chief among them (its public face) Andrew Anglin, Obeidallah seeks damages against the website for libel and intentional infliction of emotional distress.  

 Now, before even talking about Obeidallah’s chances of winning this defamation lawsuit, it is worth considering something else, namely, that given the sort of folks that he’s dealing with here, it increasingly looks like worrying about winning the case may well be the lesser of his problems. In fact, his biggest headache at this point is actually finding the people he is suing. Andrew Anglin and The Daily Stormer, for all their caustic advocacy of hate and extreme right-wing rhetoric, are notoriously shy when it comes to showing up to defend their position in court. And, whenever push comes to shove, finding them to serve them with court papers can often seem like looking for a tiny needle in a huge haystack.  “Good luck finding them,” one might well say to anyone in Obeidallah’s position looking to serve Anglin and his website with court papers.

This past April, for instance, the Alabama-based nonprofit legal advocacy group, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) tried to serve The Daily Stormer with court papers after suing them for intentional infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy for allegedly orchestrating “a troll storm” that literally sought to destroy the life Tanya Gersh, a Jewish real estate agent in Montana. (Supposedly, the Stormer’s actions were aimed at punishing Ms. Gersh for engaging with the mother of white supremacist leader Richard Spencer.) Well, let’s just say that the report card on the SPLC’s attempt to serve Anglin with court papers in his native Ohio, at one point, read like any plaintiff’s nightmare: Seven different addresses and 15 return visits yielding nothing, plus lots of undelivered certified and regular mail service. (At one point, there was even a report, albeit unsubstantiated, on CNN that said Anglin had moved to Nigeria.) Tough luck!

Long story short, Obeidallah’s opponents are not the easiest guys to find when it comes to serving court papers. Now let’s get to the law on Obeidallah’s claims against them.

First, the defamation claim involving injury to the plaintiff’s reputation is fairly easy for anyone to understand. To call anyone a “terrorist” in our post- 9/11 world is a terrible thing. What’s even worse is to say that of a Muslim person in a place like today’s America. Under these circumstances, the damage to the plaintiff’s reputation couldn’t be more self-evident. For someone in the public eye like the comedian-plaintiff in this case, whose career survival and success depends to a large extent on his public image and his acceptance by the public, the label of “terrorist” is like a dagger to the heart of his standing and reputation in the society. Of course, under the law, since truth is a defense to a defamation claim, a defendant can still defeat a defamation claim by showing that what he had said about the plaintiff is actually true. But, alas, such a defense is not available to The Daily Stormer in this case because what they said of Obeidallah here is an absolutely false and entirely made up tale with the clear purpose to ruin his reputation.

Yet, since we’re in America, the First Amendment could always come up as defense in a defamation case, for whatever it is worth. Meaning that the neo-Nazi website here, for instance, might attempt to claim that Obeidallah is a public figure and that they were simply exercising some First Amendment free speech right on a matter of public concern. Now, speaking of public figures, Obeidallah may not be a familiar person to most people on the streets of America, but he is by no means merely the sort of anonymous [private] Joe out there who rides the subways of New York City on a routine basis. To the contrary, he’s actually something of a controversial figure who takes on public causes. For instance, in the fall of 2015, he was one of the ringleaders of a group of comedians, including Negin Farsad, who won a lawsuit against the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) allowing them to advertise their documentary “The Muslims Are Coming,” in the New York City subways.  In any event, public figure or not, any First Amendment defense attempted by The Daily Stormer in this case will all but flop on the simple ground that their statement against Obeidallah was “knowingly” false.

Now, how about the claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress, which, one might add, has grown into a staple of modern defamation cases. On its terms, this claim is often designed to punish defendants whose actions are judged to be so “outrageous” as to “exceed all bounds of decency” and thus to be “utterly intolerable in a civilized society.” Well, let’s just say that for all the reasons stated above with respect to the defamation claim, the clearly outrageous actions of The Daily Stormer in this case also make them liable for the intentional infliction of emotional distress.

In the end, for all the merits of his case, it’s fair to say that Obeidallah is in something of a pickle here, which is par for the course for anybody suing a rogue defendant like The Daily Stormer these days. He has overwhelming odds of winning the match if only he can get the other guy to show up. This is the kind of irony that one won’t find in most regular cases where folks tend to worry less about their opponents actually showing up for the fight.  Not to make light of the grave situation here and to give a nod to comic relief, perhaps one can say that many of Obeidallah’s comedy brethren might find in this ironic situation some good comedy material for their time onstage. But seriously, it’ll be quite interesting to see how this case ends.

 

Twitter: @Ocarls