Civil Liberties

Where the Wild Suits Are

Satire as "libel"


If thin-skinned Texas officials get their way, the satirists at The Onion had better watch out…or at least begin printing "Just Kidding" in huge red letters across each page.

In 1999 Denton County Judge Darlene Whitten sentenced 13-year-old Christopher Beamon to a week in a "juvenile facility." Beamon, assigned to write a Halloween horror story, had produced a tale in which he accidentally shot his teacher and several students. This was apparently a no-no in post-Columbine America.

Shortly afterward, Rose Farley of The Dallas Observer wrote a parody claiming that Cindy Bradley, "a diminutive 6-year-old," had been jailed for "suspicion of making a terroristic threat"—in the form of a book report on Where the Wild Things Are. According to Farley's story, school officials "were alarmed by acts of 'cannibalism, fanaticism, and disorderly conduct'" in the book, not to mention the line "I'LL EAT YOU UP." The story quoted Judge Whitten as saying, "Any implication of violence in a school situation, even if it was just contained in a first-grader's book report, is reason enough for panic and overreaction."

Whitten responded with a lawsuit. So did District Attorney Bruce Isaacks, whom the story quoted as saying, "We've considered having her certified to stand trial as an adult, but even in Texas there are limits." Whitten and Isaacks allege that, because the story was not labeled satire, it was libel.

A state appeals court refused to dismiss the case, holding that a jury should decide whether Farley committed defamation. New Times, parent company of the Observer, is now asking the state Supreme Court to step in rather than let the case reach trial, arguing that failing to automatically recognize parodies as protected speech will have a chilling effect on other satirists.