September 03, 2004
Where The Wild Things Are

Score one for satire.

The Texas Supreme Court ruled today in favor of the Dallas Observer and against two Denton County public officials who sued the alternative newspaper over a 1999 satire it published.

The 8-0 ruling by the court came in a lawsuit over a Dallas Observer article about the fictional arrest of a 6-year-old girl.

The piece, published in 1999 under the headline "Stop the Madness," was a parody of the actual arrest of a 13-year-old Ponder student for reading a graphic Halloween story to the class. The fictional story was about a girl jailed for a report on Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are."

Denton County Court-at-law Judge Darlene Whitten and District Attorney Bruce Isaacks said the fictional story was presented as news and damaged their reputations.

The Dallas Observer said the article, which some readers thought was true, was satire and designed to poke fun. An attorney for the newspaper argued the piece was protected by the First Amendment.

The court agreed, saying a reasonable reader of the entire article would realize it was not true and was intended as satire. The justices rejected lower court opinions and said Whitten and Isaacks should take nothing in the case.

Here is the article in question (note the URL, btw). The remarkable thing to me is that it took two appeals to get to the right verdict judgment (correction noted in comments). It starts out subtle, but I defy anyone to read this passage and not suspect they're being taken:

Cindy's trouble began Monday morning, when the mother of one of her classmates called school officials to complain that students at Ponder were encouraged to read books that could cause students to think dangerous thoughts. The officials then contacted Dr. Byron Welch, who runs the Denton county school district, who in turn contacted juvenile authorities.

"In this day and age, you never know what students might do, and I can't risk another Columbine," Welch says. "Frankly, these kids scare the crap out of me."

Welch also confirmed reports that school representatives will soon join several local faith-based organizations, including God-Fearing Opponents of Freedom (GOOF), and ask publishers to review content guidelines for children's books.

I guess they could have thrown in the Rev. Billy Joe Pompadour as GOOF's leader to really drive home the point. There's still the ending if you're not sure yet:

By 5 p.m. Tuesday, the day's events were beginning to take their toll on Cindy, who asked her mom to bring her pink pajamas, the ones with the kangaroos on them, before lights-out.

"I don't get why everyone's so mad," Cindy said in a phone interview from the detention center. "Just 'cause I like how Max told his mom he wanted to eat her up and ran away in his mind and did a rumpus with the monsters doesn't mean I would do those things."

Cindy scoffed at the suggestion that Where the Wild Things Are can corrupt young minds.

"Like, I'm sure," she said. "It's bad enough people think like Salinger and Twain are dangerous, but Sendak? Give me a break, for Christ's sake. Excuse my French."

Case closed.

UPDATE: How Appealing has links to actual serious commentary plus a PDF of the court's decision. Via Seth.

UPDATE: Beldar has some good commentary on this in the comments. Check it out.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on September 03, 2004 to Legal matters | TrackBack

Kuff wrote,

The remarkable thing to me is that it took two appeals to get to the right verdict.

You should actually take comfort in the unusual procedural history of this case. The Observer moved for summary judgment, asking the case to be thrown out without further pretrial discovery, much less a full jury trial. The trial judge refused to do so, but the Observer took advantage of a special statute, section 51.014(a)(6) of the Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code. That statute allows interlocutory appeals in from the denial of summary judgment in certain defamation cases — that is, an appeal taken before the case has even gone to trial — to challenge the trial judge's decision.

The Dallas Court of Appeals agreed with the trial judge that there was a sufficient basis for the case to go to trial — which is not the same as saying the plaintiffs should or would win, but just that there should be a jury trial. Both the trial judge and the Dallas Court of Appeals were behaving quite cautiously, probably because the controlling Texas caselaw wasn't terribly clear, and because they knew that if the Observer lost in front of the jury, the Observer would get second chances to fix things via a post-trial motion in the trial court and/or a regular post-trial appeal.

But before a trial could be held, the Texas Supreme Court agreed to hear the Observer's further interlocutory appeal, reversed the Dallas Court of Appeals' decision, and rendered judgment that the case should be thrown out forthwith, without a trial. Game, set, and match — total victory for the Observer, no remand, and nothing left to do in either the trial court or the Dallas Court of Appeals.

As lawsuits go, this one got to the Texas Supreme Court in a hurry, then. The Observer was spared the very considerable expense and time of going through a jury trial, and in the process made some very pro-media First Amendment caselaw. All in all, I'd say the judicial system performed pretty well on this one.

(A nit — there was never a "verdict" because the case never went to the jury. You meant "judgment.")

Posted by: Beldar on September 4, 2004 3:51 AM