Siouxland Observer

Research, Education, Links and Opinion

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Satire, Hyperbole And Uncle Denton
The Pillow Retort


"With his devastatingly handsome, round face, his boyish charm, and his strong, sturdy frame, this Pyongyang-bred heartthrob is every woman's dream come true—“  the Onion, November 14, 2012.

Imagine being with family during the holidays, when suddenly a postpubescent son of a distant relative enters the family room.  In characteristic form, a man with great knowledge is explaining how college teams, especially those who have won during their regular season, get to play in the best bowl games on New Years Day.  The host, “Uncle Denton,” names those bowl games.  Let’s see, there’s a Rose Bowl; and an Orange Bowl; and for gosh sakes, even a Capitol One Bowl.

Suddenly, there are titters; then looks of concern.  Everyone seems to be waiting for something.  The son, “Junior,” has placed a pillow in the room with an image on it.  A close inspection reveals it is an enlarged image from a family photo, one of Uncle—a true football fan, who is now just finishing up on the absurdity of a bowl game named after a credit card. 

There is a pause, when suddenly Junior begins to espouse great knowledge of other bowl games, none played on New Years Day.  As he rattles off days and dates, he grows tried, falls back on his pillow and closes his eyes.  He begins to snore loudly.  At first everyone is silent, but then laughter is heard.  It is gentle laughter, to be sure, but the man in the gridiron chair looks uncomfortable just the same. 

No one could have imagined what happened next. 

For whatever reason, Uncle Denton grew self-righteous, and would not shrug the joke off.  He demanded Junior leave the room.  When he refused, Uncle became livid.  As others came to Junior’s defense, they too were told to leave.  A man’s home “is his castle,” and soon, everyone was packing up to head home, Uncle Denton alone in his chair watching the game.   

Forward comes a fine line.  Yes, some teenagers, journalists and others understand satire and hyperbole (or other forms of communication), but Uncle Denton did not.  Of course, family members can roll their eyes, but some “uncles” may launch an investigation; especially big, hairy uncles, brand new to running family groups. 

For Denton, there will be an apology down the road, but how about others?  What happens when people can’t pack up and head home?  Or when Denton, or Deanna for that mater, can’t see their own stupidity?

Satire is not easy, of course, and some never get it.  After all, the People's Daily in Beijing reprinted The Onion story about Kim Jong Un as fact.  They took the award as serious, not satire.

In Uncle Denton’s case, had he understood the law, he would have known that in order to launch an investigation, or perhaps state a claim for defamation, Uncle needs to allege the making of a false statement of fact.

Sounds complicated, right?  But in American, freedom of speech is given.  The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Okay.  Did Uncle Denton have a right to spoil New Years Day?  Did Junior do anything wrong?  Not in America.

According to Susan H. Aprill, in the "Reporter's Handbook,” opinion does not constitute fact and, thus, the rendering of an opinion is not actionable. Under the common law, commentary or expressions of opinion enjoys a "fair comment" privilege. 

Go Junior.

But it is not that simple.  You can't just say anything.  But in order to state a claim for defamation, a plaintiff must allege the making of a false statement of fact, and according to Aprill, "opinion" traditionally did not constitute fact.  Thus, the rendering of an opinion was not actionable.  

Talk about gobbledygook.  No wonder Uncle Denton and others shouts like a deranged Egyptian dictator.  But this is exactly what happened to the Dallas Observer News for their publication of “Stop the Madness” (warning: malware linked to article), written by Rose Farley, November 11, 1999.

Farley reported that in a homework-related arrest (the second) in the Dallas area, a Denton County juvenile court judge jailed a Ponder student for suspicion of making a terroristic threat when the first-grader wrote a book report on the children's classic "Where the Wild Things Are."

“Cindy Bradley, a diminutive 6-year-old, was arrested without incident during ‘Story Time,’” according to Farley, and  “…in a court appearance later that day, Judge Darlene Whitten ordered the girl detained for 10 days at the Denton County juvenile detention center while prosecutors contemplate whether to file charges.

"’Any implication of violence in a school situation, even if it was just contained in a first-grader's book report, is reason enough for panic and overreaction,’ Whitten said from the bench. ‘It's time for you to grow up, young lady, and it's time for us to stop treating kids like children.’"

(This is a photo of Cindy with her duck.)


According to the Georgia Law Review, in an article published in 2004, the Dallas Observer News received complaints accusing Isaacks (the Denton County District Attorney) and Whitten of incompetence and calling for their dismissal from office based on the account given in the article.  Readers and other news media also contacted Isaacks and Whitten directly to voice their complaints.  Unfortunately, the events described in the article were not true.

“The article was actually a fictitious, satiric comment based on a real detention of a seventh-grader fifteen days earlier,” the Georgia Law Review said.  “The real incident sparking the fictional article occurred on October 28, 1999 when Judge Whitten ordered that a seventh-grader in Ponder, Texas be detained for five days at a juvenile facility while the Denton County District Attorney's office considered delinquency charges.  The possible charges arose from the seventh-grader's writing of a "graphic Halloween horror story depicting the shooting death of a teacher and two fellow students."

Thus, "...the public outcry against Whitten and Isaacks which followed the publication of the fictitious article prompted the two officials to sue the Dallas Observer for defamation. In defense of their actions, the defendants argued that the article was protected as opinion or rhetorical hyperbole.”

The Dallas Observer News almost lost, but in New Times, Inc. v. Isaacks, the former rulings against the weekly were overturned. According to the First Amendment Center the article contained enough exaggerations and distortions that a hypothetical reasonable reader would know that the article was satire (and not falsehoods).

Whew, the good guys dodged a bullet.  Commentary and opinion (even satire and hyperbole) are protected in a free society.  But what about the pillow retort in the family room?

To read what happened to another “Junior” check this out (cancel the ad to find the news story). 

Yes, someone launched an investigation.  Unfortunately, the people of Egypt can't go home.  They are home.  May they grow strong, and have safe haven.   Good luck families of the Arab Spring in finding your own free society.