The West Virginia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union recently filed an amicus brief in support of John Oliver, HBO and Time Warner, all of whom have been named as defendants in a defamation lawsuit filed by coal mogul, Robert Murray, over comments made by Oliver on the comedian’s “Last Week Tonight” cable television show.
Murray, one of the largest coal mine operators in the U.S., is suing for defamation, false light invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The coal mogul sued after Oliver devoted most of his June 18 show to the coal industry, which the satirist contended President Trump has exploited for political gain. Murray, who is the chief executive of Murray Energy Corp., was singled out for mockery and described as looking “like a geriatric Dr. Evil,” a reference to the balding villain in the “Austin Powers” movies.
Oliver’s team contacted Murray prior to the segment’s airing for his statement and the coal entrepreneur responded with a cease and desist letter that was ignored. In his segment, Oliver predicted that Murray would sue him, acknowledging Murray’s history of suing any media outlet that had the nerve to write unflattering pieces about his businesses.
Between 2001 and 2015, Murray filed at least nine lawsuits against journalists and news outlets that published a negative advertisement from an activist group, claiming they maligned his character and threatened his employees jobs. None ever went to trial. In 2013, he sued the Huffington Post and a blogger for defamation involving a story that called him an “extreme coal baron” and criticized his donations to a gubernatorial candidate. That case was dismissed the following year. In May of this year, Murray Energy sued the New York Times for libel after the newspaper published an editorial calling the company a “serial violator” of federal health and safety rules.
The ACLU brief does not pull any punches or punch lines in asking the court to dismiss the suit and reject Murray’s request for a gag order prohibiting Oliver from engaging in further episodes of what Murray claims is “ruthless character assassination.” The brief contains humorous headers such as, “Anyone can legally say ‘Eat s—t, Bob!’”, “Courts can’t tell media companies how to report, Bob”, and “You can’t get a court order telling the press how to cover stories, Bob.” The brief notes that “It is apt that one of plaintiff’s objections to the show is about a human-sized squirrel named Mr. Nutterbutter, because this case is nuts.”
The brief goes on to say “This suit is beyond meritless. It is offensive to the very ideals of free speech embodied in the First Amendment.” “The fact that plaintiffs filed this case is ridiculous enough; but to pour gasoline on the fire, plaintiffs’ counsel has also filed a motion asking the court to make John Oliver not say mean things about him anymore.”
“Although this brief pokes fun at the absurdity of this case, the legal issues raised by it are anything but comical,” wrote ACLU lawyer Jamie Lynn Crofts. Crofts boiled Murray’s lawsuit down to the coal baron “not liking a television program and somehow believing that is a legally actionable offense.” She also said “It is a basic concept of free speech that you do not get to sue media organizations because you don’t like their coverage.”
The ACLU brief calls it “frankly shocking that the plaintiffs were able to find attorneys willing to file a lawsuit that is so clearly unconstitutional.”
Offensive speech and comedy are protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That is especially true with regard to speech about public figures and matters of public concern. Comedians like John Oliver, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart have, and should have, substantial latitude to impart information to their large national audiences about important issues facing the country. The communication of that information should not be prevented by courts simply because powerful people find it objectionable.