Just a Joke: Defamatory Humor and Incongruity's Promise
85 Pages Posted: 2 Nov 2010 Last revised: 26 Nov 2010
Humor often arises as a defense in defamation actions, with defendants claiming that their challenged communication was "just a joke." Given the long established tie between defamation and First Amendment doctrines, United States courts evaluate the defense in light of free speech protections as well as reputational interests incorporated in the elements of the defamation tort. In grappling with humor, courts usually invoke First Amendment doctrine’s familiar distinction between fact and opinion. If a putative joke is sorted down the "opinion" chute, then the humorist faces no civil liability. If, on the other hand, the putative joke suggests false facts unfavorable to the plaintiff, the defendant may face liability. Useful as an analytical starting point, this fact/opinion dichotomy does not adequately integrate all the values and concerns that come into play where humor and defamation law collide.
Humor is complex, capable of both great good and enormous mischief. The challenge whether to provide legal protection for humorous communications implicates the same value clashes between freedom of expression and protection of reputational interests that appear in other defamation contexts. Yet humor’s potential for individual and collective benefit (as well as its capacity to cut deep wounds) suggests that courts should tailor analysis specifically to humor’s unique qualities. Happily, assistance comes from centuries of interdisciplinary scholarship dedicated to understanding humor. In particular, humor scholarship’s core concept - incongruity (the juxtaposition of two or more unlikely ideas) - helps to calibrate an optimal balance of First Amendment concerns and the values of human dignity, property, and honor in defamatory humor cases.
Assistance for United States courts also comes from an unlikely source - Australia. Australian cultural emphasis on humor and plain speaking as well as its lack of a formal First Amendment enables Australian case law to provide meaningful guidance both affirmatively and negatively, as a foil for identifying what analysis is not well suited to United States common law and constitutional traditions.
Keywords: Defamation, First Amendment, United States Constitution, Free Speech, Humor, Comedy, Joke, Opinion, Australian Constitution, Rhetorical Hyperbole, Epithet, Protected Speech
JEL Classification: K13, K19, K41, K10, K33
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation