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US free speech lawyer defends satire of Glenn Beck

November 5, 2009

US free speech lawyer defends satire of Glenn Beck

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Massachusetts-based First Amendment rights lawyer Marc Randazza is defending a controversial parody website which satirizes American political commentator Glenn Beck. The website was created in September by a man from Florida named Isaac Eiland-Hall, and it asserts Beck uses questionable tactics “to spread lies and misinformation”.

Glenn Beck in 2009
Image: Mark87.

The website created by Eiland-Hall is located at the domain name “www.GlennBeckRapedAndMurderedAYoungGirlIn1990.com”. Its premise is derived from a joke statement made by Gilbert Gottfried about fellow comedian Bob Saget. The joke was first applied to Beck on the Internet discussion community Fark. It then became popular on Internet social media sites including Reddit and Digg, and was the subject of a Google bomb, a technique where individuals link phrases in order to artificially change Google search results.

Eiland-Hall saw the discussion on Fark, and created a website about it. The website asserts it does not believe the rumors to be true, and states: “But we think Glenn Beck definitely uses tactics like this to spread lies and misinformation.” In an interview with Ars Technica, he said the website was “using Beck’s tactics against him”. The website was created on September 1, and by September 3 attorneys for Beck’s company Mercury Radio Arts took action. Beck’s lawyers sent letters to the domain name registrar where they referred to the domain name itself as “defamatory”, but they failed to get the site removed.

Cquote1.png Even an imbecile would look at this Web site and know that it’s a parody. Cquote2.png
—Marc Randazza, attorney for the website

Beck filed a formal complaint with the Switzerland-based agency of the United Nations, the World Intellectual Property Organization. Beck alleged that the website’s usage is libelous, bad faith, and could befuddle potential consumers. Beck’s complaint was filed under the process called the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy. The policy allows trademark owners to begin an administrative action by complaining that a certain domain registration is in “bad faith”. A lawyer for Beck declined to provide a comment to the Boston Herald, however a source told the newspaper that Beck’s complaint with the site is primarily a “trademark issue”.

Randazza established an attorney-client relationship with Eiland-Hall after his client received threatening letters from attorneys representing Beck. He then sent an email to Beck’s attorneys, and pointed out inconsistencies between their client’s recent actions and his prior public statements in support of the First Amendment. Randazza wrote a reply to the World Intellectual Property Organization, and contends that the website is “protected political speech”, because it is “satirical political humor”. Randazza stated that “Even an imbecile would look at this Web site and know that it’s a parody.” In his legal brief, Randazza compared the website to other Internet memes, such as “All your base are belong to us” and video parodies of the German film Downfall.

Cquote1.svg It’s not often that I would recommend reading a World Intellectual Property Organization legal brief for its entertainment value, but today is going to be an exception. Cquote2.svg
—Andy Carvin, National Public Radio

“We are here because Mr. Beck wants Respondent’s website shut down. He wants it shut down because Respondent’s website makes a poignant and accurate satirical critique of Mr. Beck by parodying Beck’s very rhetorical style,” wrote Randazza in the brief. The brief also commented on Beck’s style of reporting, and pointed out a controversial statement made by Beck when he interviewed a Muslim member of the United States Congress. Beck said to Representative Keith Ellison: “I like Muslims, I’ve been to mosques. … And I have to tell you, I have been nervous about this interview because what I feel like saying is, sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.” According to the Citizen Media Law Project, the website’s joke premise takes advantage of “a perceived similarity between Beck’s rhetorical style and the Gottfried routine”.

Public interest attorney Paul Levy told Ars Technica that if a statement in a website’s domain name were both false and “stated with actual malice”, it is possible it could be considered defamatory. The First Post reported that Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Corynne McSherry gave an analysis asserting that though the domain name of the website is “pretty dramatic”, it constituted “pure political criticism and there’s nothing wrong with that”. McSherry and Levy both agreed that the action of Beck to take the matter to the World Intellectual Property Organization was probably a tactic to determine the identity of the website’s owner.

Andy Carvin of National Public Radio wrote that Randazza’s legal brief was amusing, commenting: “It’s not often that I would recommend reading a World Intellectual Property Organization legal brief for its entertainment value, but today is going to be an exception.” Nate Anderson of Ars Technica commented “In any event, the WIPO battle promises to be entertaining, and there’s even a bit of serious purpose mixed in with the frivolity. Just how far can WIPO go in using its domain dispute system to address Internet spats?”. Domain Name Wire wrote that “…when someone who has created a bitingly satirical web site works with his lawyer to put pen to the paper, the end result can be quite amusing.”

Writing for Adweek, Eriq Gardner pointed out the comparison made by Randazza’s legal brief between the website’s parody nature itself and the statement made by Beck to Congressman Ellison, noting: “this case also makes a political point”. Jack Bremer wrote in The First Post that the attempts by Beck’s lawyers to argue that the website’s domain name is itself defamatory “looks like a first in cyber law”. Rick Sawyer of Bostonist characterized Randazza’s legal brief as “Hillarious!”, and called the attorney “among the North Shore’s most hilarious legal writers”.

Cquote1.png [Glenn Beck] did the one thing guaranteed to garner the greatest amount of publicity for the site… Cquote2.png
Politics Daily

The FOX News-critical site FoxNewsBoycott.com likened the legal conflict between Beck and the site to the Streisand effect, a phenomenon where an individual’s attempt to censor material on the Internet in turn proves to make the material itself more public. “Glenn Beck is experiencing the Streisand Effect first hand,” wrote FoxNewsBoycott.com. John Cook of Gawker.com also compared Beck’s actions to the Streisand effect: “Now Glenn Beck’s trying to shut down their web site, ensuring that people will write about it.” Jeffrey Weiss of Politics Daily wrote that by taking legal action, Beck “did the one thing guaranteed to garner the greatest amount of publicity for the site”. Techdirt described Beck’s legal action as “not particularly smart”, and noted: “Beck would have been better off just ignoring it. Instead, in legitimizing it by trying to take it down, many more people become aware of the meme — and may start calling attention to situations where Beck (and others) make use of such tactics.” The blog Hot Air noted the issue could gain attention if it becomes a test case for the First Amendment: “If this becomes a First Amendment test case, the smear’s going to be covered far and wide…”

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