Thursday, April 8, 2010
C.A. Upholds Dismissal of Libel Case Based on Comedy Routine
By a MetNews Staff Writer
This district’s Court of Appeal has upheld the dismissal of a libel action against a government-owned and commercially-supported public service broadcaster in the United Kingdom based on its airing of a comedic performance by Emmy-nominated actor and writer Sacha Baron Cohen.
In an unpublished decision Tuesday, Div. Two explained that no reasonable viewer of the broadcast could have understood the derogatory statements made by Cohen during an episode of Da Ali G Show as implying provably false assertions of fact about the plaintiff.
That plaintiff, identified in the decision as Jane Doe but identified in numerous media outlets as Heddi Cundle, said she had met Cohen during a British Jewish youth group trip to Israel in 1987. She claimed that the two had maintained a platonic friendship after the trip, but they eventually lost touch.
Cohen later rose to stardom as Da Ali G. Show’s title character, a white “wannabe” gangster rapper who would conduct spoof interviews with prominent experts on varied topics for comedic effect.
During one episode of the program, Cohen interviewed American author Gore Vidal and began discussing the constitutional amendment process.
At one point, Cohen asked if it would be “better sometimes, to get rid of the [Constitution] rather than amend it” and compared the amendment process to the futile efforts of a particularly ugly woman bearing plaintiff’s name to improve her appearance.
“[S[he used to always trying [to] amend herself,” Cohen said. “Y’know, get her hair done in highlights, get like tattoo done… but it didn’t make any more difference.” Eventually he claimed that he “had enough” and broke off their relationship, asking “[a]in’t it the same with the Constitution?”
Channel 4 originally broadcast the episode in 2004, and Home Box Office Inc. distributed a version of the program for the United States.
Plaintiff said she saw a broadcast of the program, which greatly upset her. As she worked in public relations, she claimed she also suffered embarrassment when the media and certain clients commented to her about the episode.
She later filed suit against Channel 4, HBO and Cohen alleging multiple causes of action, including libel, slander, invasion of privacy, fraud, negligence, negligent misrepresentation and negligent infliction of emotional distress. Plaintiff sought general damages and injunctive relief.
Channel 4 moved for summary judgment, which Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Terry B. Friedman, who recently retired, granted. After viewing the episode himself, Friedman found that no reasonable person could consider the statements made by Cohen’s character to be factual.
Writing for the appellate court, Justice Kathryn Doi Todd agreed. She noted that Cohen uttered the statements while in character, in the context of a spoof interview involving a series of “other comedic and sometimes crude statements,” such as the assertion that Vidal was a world famous hairstylist; that actor Denzel Washington lived in George Washington’s former Mount Vernon home; that John Paul Jones was a quadriplegic; that the world was running out of gravity, which was discovered by “Sir Isaac Newton-John”; that “euthanasia” meant the killing of elderly people by youth in Asia; and that Ali G’s face was being added to Mount Rushmore.
“Taken in context, a reasonable viewer would have no basis for distinguishing these satirical and imaginative statements from statements purporting to detail Ali G’s prior relationship with [plaintiff],” Doi Todd said.
Presiding Justice Roger W. Boren and Justice Judith M. Ashmann-Gerst joined Doi Todd in her decision.
The case is Doe v. Channel Four Television Corporation, B217145.
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company