From Corso Ventures LLC v. PayeDecided Tuesday by the Ohio Court of Appeals (Judges Betsy Luper Schuster, joined by Judges William Klatt and Jullia Dorrian (confirming the decision I blogged about here):
Jordan … publishes the website DelawareOhioNews.com. Jordan publishes articles and other content on the site, often using the pseudonym Ricardo Payet. Jordan described the site as a “satirical site” posting fictional stories to “make fun” of issues of local or national interest. This website contains an “About Us” section which states:
Delaware Ohio News is your online news and content source exclusively for the state of Delaware, Ohio. Founded in 1808, we strive to be Delaware’s premier news source, second only to the renowned Delaware Gazette. Although we were the first newspaper in Delaware, Ohio, they are still the lord of the Delaware news media. This is why we are suicidal and take so many drugs.
Nevertheless, all content on this website is fictitious. Do not rely on anything said here.
Don’t believe us? Read our legal notice.
The Legal Notices section of the website contains the following statement:
All stories in this article are parodies (sarcasm, fiction, falsehood, non-truth) of people and/or real events. All names are fictitious (unless used to impersonate public figures) and any similarity is purely coincidental.
DelawareOhioNews.com is not affiliated with Ohio Wesleyan University or any other publication.
DelawareOhioNews.com is intended for persons 18 years of age and older. It’s up to you if you think your child can handle this kind of humor. We are not role models.
In January 2020, Jordan came across a report on the local news that a Columbus restaurant, Short North Food Hall, had instituted a dress code that prohibited certain clothing and accessories. Jordan described the dress code as prohibiting the wearing of many garments associated with black culture. News reports identified Corso Ventures as the parent company of Short North Food Hall and said Christopher Corso owns the restaurant. In response to local news reports, Jordan wrote and published three articles on his website with the following titles: “Corso Ventures’ Newest Bar, Niggers, Comes to Short North This Fall,” Keeping Blacks Out of the Bar,” and “White Wednesday at Short North Food Hall.” The articles appeared on the site, surrounded by other headlines that Jordan found ironic, including “July 4th socially distanced march will be 86 miles long, last 40 hours,” “Sanitation Ministry: Please cover your dog’s anus to prevent spread of coronavirus,” “VA patients share prosthetics after Kasich denies funding,” and “Ohio Gov. John Kasich legalizes statewide exhumation of Confederate soldiers’ bodies. “…
The plaintiff sued for defamation, but the appellate court (agreeing with the trial court) held that the defendant’s statement was a legal parody and therefore not an assertion of fact that would be defamatory:
The question here is whether what Jordan wrote and published on the site is a parody and therefore protected speech. Appellant contends that it is not clear from the articles that the authors intended the statements to be understood as parody or satire, and that some may have interpreted the articles as statements of true fact. As the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently explained, “[o]Our country’s longstanding First Amendment protections against imitation don’t ebb and flow with whether or not a few people get confused. Instead, we must apply the ‘reasonable audience’ test. “also,”[s]Statements that ‘cannot reasonably be construed as statements of true fact’ are parody, even if ‘obviously objectionable’. “Publications.” Indeed, the genius of a parody is that it comes close enough to reality to provoke a moment’s disbelief in the mind of the reader before he understands it. [or he] Realized the joke. “
Taking the overall picture, we conclude that the articles here cannot reasonably be construed as stating actual facts when read in context. The case concerns three articles published on Jordanian websites. The first was titled “White Wednesday at Short North Food Hall” and was formatted as a flyer promoting the supposed event.The leaflet further states that “every Wednesday white is right [night]”, “No Melanin, No Covering,” “White Wine All You Can Drink,” “Free Roast Chicken Nuggets and Landline Phones.” Fall.” The article describes the opening of a new bar and nightclub, “which will primarily cater to non- American needs” and used a racial slur misspelled as the company’s putative name. The article also cites “Principal partner Crisp Corso,” including the following:
Principal partner Crisp Corso said he was happy to finally open a location where black people could give him money without preventing white people from giving him money.
“I’ve wanted to do a project like this for a while because I felt like I had a good idea of what these people want and need,” Corso said, referring to black people. “I know they’re not welcome in the rest of us because they’re not, so Nighers is our chance to give them their own nightlife experience. Hopefully more urbanites who make us uncomfortable will choose to let them in Here to spend time instead of walking up and down the street looking for white places to let them in.”
The third article was titled “Short North Food Hall literally just Googled ‘how to keep black people off bars'”. The first line of this article states “[c]Curious how Short North Food Hall came up with their racist dress code? Simple: they googled it. The rest of the article is a comparison between Short North Food Hall’s dress code and a supposed Google search result.
The tone of all three articles, under a reasonable readership test, would suggest that these statements were satirical, designed to distort public news coverage of Short North Food Hall’s imposition of a dress code, the ensuing public backlash, and the ensuing Corso and Corso Ventures Apologies. A reasonable reader would not interpret the article as stating a true fact. In addition, these articles appear on a website that clearly and conspicuously states that the content of the website is fictitious and should not be construed as true by readers. Other articles on the site are similarly ironic in nature, further illustrating that the content should not be taken as fact. Given the tone of the article and the explicit disclaimer on the website that the content is a parody or satire and should not be construed as a statement of fact, we agree with the trial court that a reasonable reader would interpret these statements as parody or satire.
Despite the more prevalent satirical tone of the articles and websites, as well as the explicit disclaimers on the websites, appellants argue that these statements should not be protected as parodies because the allegations of racism are so clearly offensive that they constitute defamation in themselves. A statement can be defamatory “in itself,” where damage is assumed and the degree of negligence necessary, where the statement “tends to injure a person’s trade, occupation, or occupation.” As appellant noted, “Ohio courts have held that ‘the alleged Being racist can sometimes be a slur in itself.’”
What appellants ignore in their argument, however, is that to constitute defamation itself, the statement must first constitute defamation.As we said, the court must consider the overall situation and consider the statement in its context Determine whether a reasonable reader would interpret it as parody or satire, and therefore not as slander. Any reference to racism here, whether explicitly stated in the article or implied through its content, is still satire or parody when read in context. Appellants may find these statements offensive, but even offensive parody and satire are protected speech as long as a reasonable reader understands that the statements are parody or satire.
Appellant raises several additional arguments as to why these statements should not be protected as parody, all of which are unpersuasive. First, appellant contends that the website disclaimer should not protect respondent because readers may not see the website disclaimer if they search for Corso on the Internet and find the article through an external link. However, as stated above, the disclaimer and the entire website provide the context in which the statement appears. Appellant cannot separate the statement from its context. Furthermore, the tone of the article itself suggests to reasonable readers that the content is satire and parody even when read without the disclaimer.
Next, appellant alleges that the trial court erroneously considered Corso to be a personal rather than a public figure. … [But t]The difference between a defamation charge brought by an individual and a public figure is not the nature of the allegedly defamatory statement, but the degree of fault required to prove the charge… The conclusion was that the statements were not defamatory because they were protected parody or satire, and the trial court did not need to reach the question of whether appellee’s actions had the requisite degree of fault.
Further, appellants argue that these publications should not be protected as parody or satire because they falsely imply that appellant is the owner of Short North Food Hall and, therefore, they question whether they are dress code enacters By. As appellant noted, Short North Food Hall is owned by an entity called 1112 Short North LLC, not Corso or Corso Ventures. However, we agree with the trial court that it does not matter whether appellant actually owns Short North Food Hall or is the entity responsible for enacting the dress code. By definition, parody and satire do not involve assertions of fact.
We note the appellant’s public apology for the dress code at Short North Food Hall. Therefore, whether or not the appellant is the technical owner of Short North Food Hall does not affect the contextual reading of the publications here or hinder the ability of a reasonable reader to discern that the publications are satirical.
Finally, we disagree with appellant that granting summary judgment in this case would create a loophole in defamation law that would extend absolute privilege to anyone who makes a defamatory statement that the person claims is satire or parody. We emphasize again that a statement does not constitute defamation if it can only be understood by a reasonable reader as a parody or irony when taken in its entirety and read in its context rather than in isolation. Adding a disclaimer stating that it is satire or parody may help to provide specific context, but it does not close the inquiry as to whether the statement is parody or defamation. … On the issue at hand, and given the full circumstances and context in which the statement appeared, we agree with the trial court that these publications are protected speech and cannot be flagged as defamatory.
Congratulations to Kevin Shook, Zackary Stillings and J. Maxwell Williams representing the defendants.