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Friday, May 20, 2005
Boston Sportscaster Bob Lobel Sues Cartoonist Darby Conley for Libel
Famed CBS4-TV Sportscaster Bob Lobel has sued syndicated cartoonist Darby Conley for his May 13 "Get Fuzzy" cartoon. In the cartoon, which appeared in over 450 newspapers, a dog, cat, and their owner are watching TV and the dog says "Is this sportscaster . . . drunk?" The owner replies, "Lobel? Who knows?" The cat and owner then get into argument and the dog says, "Guys, guys! How can you fight while there's a drunk guy on TV?"
Having grown up in Massachusetts, I can safely say that Bob Lobel is my favorite local sportscaster. He's funny, irreverent, and willing to ask difficult questions. But the best thing about him is that he is authentic and self-effacing, and not the cookie-cutter, smiling, transparently-arrogant sportscaster type. However, his style can sometimes seem, as his attorney, Harry Manion, puts it, "breezy" and it can invite speculation as to whether he might be on something.
But did the cartoonist go too far in saying that Lobel is drunk while on-air?
By definition, libel is defamation by writing. It occurs when a false and defamatory statement is published, that statement is about a particular person, and it harms that person's reputation or exposes him to contempt or ridicule. Whether the victim is a public figure or not affects the requisite standard of fault: while public figures (like Lobel) have to show the accused had "actual malice" (i.e., knowledge or recklessness) in making the defamatory statement, non-public figures only have to show that the accused was negligent, or failed to act with due care. There are several viable defenses to libel, including truth and consent.
Generally, libel is difficult to prove, and as you can tell by their more burdensome standard for proving guilt, public figures have an especially difficult time winning libel suits. For instance, in 1983, Jerry Falwell sued Hustler Magazine after it carried a parody of an Italian spirit Campari advertisement in which Falwell discussed partaking in incest, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that no matter how upsetting a satire may be, it is protected by the First Amendment.
On the other hand, in 1984, Carol Burnett won her libel lawsuit against the National Enquirer for inventing a story that she had a heated (and drunken) argument with former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in a popular Washington D.C. restaurant. More recently, and as discussed by Professor Christine A. Corcos of the Media Law Prof Blog, Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Ernest B. Murphy won his libel suit this year against the Boston Herald and its reporter David Wedge for misquoting him and then using those misquotes as front-page headlines.
We'll keep you updated on Lobel v. Conley.
See 7/30/05 Update