PARODY IS NOT DEFAMATION UNDER INDIANA LAW
Last month, the Indiana Court of Appeals decided an interesting defamation case that involved a personal attack on a website. Although the Court did not use the terminology, it appears that the website involved was probably what is typically referred to as a "blog" these days.
According to the Court's opinion, Paul Hamilton is a businessman in Daviess County, Indiana. He owns and operates a business known as Hamilton Water Conditioning there. Morgan Prewitt and his wife are also residents of Daviess County.
At some point prior to June of 2002, Prewitt allegedly began operating a website entitled "Paul Hamilten--The World's Smartest Man." Although there was a one-letter difference between "Hamilten" and "Hamilton," Mr. Prewett never denied that he was the author of the website, or that it was intended to refer to Paul Hamilton and his business. The website portrayed "Hamilten" as a manipulative and dishonest individual. For example, the website stated: I am a very intelligent, older American male and have my own very successful business dealing with the water conditioning field. I have a Master's Degree in Water Conditioning from Smartass University, a prestigious mail order college. While I am somewhat attractive, I am known for my ability to seduce women with my quick wit. I have several methods of attracting women as well as socializing skills, which are in the book I am writing... ******* When my employees are installing a unit at a place where their [sic] is a woman at home, I like to get the target alone and tell her that she doesn't have to "pay for this." A couple of winks and boom, you have another sucker hooked. Please note that this only works on women that have half a brain, the more intelligent ones. ******* I began stocking water in large five gallon containers. To turn over the water stock supply and maintain fresh water, I began selling the oldest containers as bottled water.....No one is smart enough to test the water for free sodium ions, they will never know it's just softened water in the containers.
The Court's opinion goes on to give several more examples of the claims that were made in the website.
When Paul Hamilton learned about the website, he filed a lawsuit against Prewitt for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The Special Judge of the Daviess Superior Court granted summary judgment to Prewett, and Hamilton then appealed.
Judge John Baker wrote the opinion for the Court of Appeals of Indiana. After noting that this was a case of first impression--meaning that it presented an issue not previously decided by our appellate courts-- Judge Baker affirmed the decision of the trial court.
Initially, the Court considered the nature of the law of defamation as it has developed in Indiana. The law of defamation was created to protect individuals from reputational attacks. A defamatory communication is defined as one that "tends so to harm the reputation of another as to lower him in estimation of the community or to deter a third person from associating or dealing with him."
In order to prevail in a case for defamation, a plaintiff must prove four elements: (1) a communication with defamatory imputation; (2) malice; (3) publication; and (4) damages. To impose liability for defamation, a false statement of fact is required.
While Indiana has ample case law dealing with defamation, this appears the first case dealing with parody. In adopting language from other jurisdictions, the Court noted that, "Parody involves exaggeration or distortion and is the means by which the author clearly indicates to his audience that the piece does not purport to be a statement of fact but is rather an expression of criticism or opinion.....The satiric effect emerges only as the reader concludes by the very outrageousness of the words that the whole thing is a put-on. The comic effect is achieved because the reader sees the words as the absurd expression of positions or ideas associated with the purported author."
The key to the Court's decision appears to lie in the fact that there are no believable false statements of fact contained within the website. From reading the Court's opinion I believe that, if the website had contained actual false statements of fact rather than mere parody, the Court would not have upheld the summary judgment. In this regard, the Court cautioned: " By finding parody and defamation to be mutually exclusive, we are not suggesting that language cannot be defamatory if it is also humorous. A defendant who couches a defamatory imputation of fact in humor cannot
simply avoid liability by dressing his wolfish words in humorous sheep's clothing."
This final distinction by the Court is crucial. We should all realize that a false statement about someone else is
actionable, even if it is phrased in a humorous fashion.
I believe that this is a well-reasoned and sound decision. If you would like to read the whole opinion, the case is Hamilton v. Prewett,
860 N.E.2d 1234 (Ind. App. 2007).