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Texas Court to Rule: Can Fiction Be Libel?


— December 1, 2003


Shortly after a Texas county judge had 13-year-old Christopher Beamon jailed for five days for writing a Halloween essay about the shooting of a teacher, the Dallas Observer parodied the news item with a fictional account of its own.

In a satirical piece, the same judge, Darlene Whitten, was portrayed jailing a 6-year-old girl for writing a book report on Maurice Sendak’s children’s classic “Where The Wild Things Are,” said to contain “cannibalism, fanaticism, and disorderly conduct.”

“We just thought the whole notion of jailing a student for doing his ‘scary story’ homework assignment was absurd, and thought satire was a good way to make our point,” says Patrick Williams, the Observer’s managing editor. . . .

[B]ut given Judge Whitten’s actual detention of a 13-year-old two weeks earlier, the satire came close enough to reality to fool some readers.

The University of North Texas student newspaper reported it as news, as did a talk-show host at Dallas-Fort Worth radio station KRLD, and the resulting fallout has culminated in a case scheduled to be argued before the Texas state Supreme Court later this week.

At the heart of the case is the question of whether satire, a form of political speech defended as a First Amendment right, can be classified as libel if readers think it is the truth.

The Christian Science Monitor has the whole story here.


Shortly after a Texas county judge had 13-year-old Christopher Beamon jailed for five days for writing a Halloween essay about the shooting of a teacher, the Dallas Observer parodied the news item with a fictional account of its own.

In a satirical piece, the same judge, Darlene Whitten, was portrayed jailing a 6-year-old girl for writing a book report on Maurice Sendak’s children’s classic “Where The Wild Things Are,” said to contain “cannibalism, fanaticism, and disorderly conduct.”

“We just thought the whole notion of jailing a student for doing his ‘scary story’ homework assignment was absurd, and thought satire was a good way to make our point,” says Patrick Williams, the Observer’s managing editor. . . .

[B]ut given Judge Whitten’s actual detention of a 13-year-old two weeks earlier, the satire came close enough to reality to fool some readers.

The University of North Texas student newspaper reported it as news, as did a talk-show host at Dallas-Fort Worth radio station KRLD, and the resulting fallout has culminated in a case scheduled to be argued before the Texas state Supreme Court later this week.

At the heart of the case is the question of whether satire, a form of political speech defended as a First Amendment right, can be classified as libel if readers think it is the truth.

The Christian Science Monitor has the whole story here.

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