Earlier today, author John Scalzi posed this question:
I am incapable of passing a question like this without answering it. Moreover, as luck would have it, I just finished a brief on the subject yesterday.
So: here is the short answer. The book title is almost certainly parody protected by the First Amendment, because an audience familiar with the circumstances would recognize it as parody and not as an assertion of fact.
Now: cry havoc, and let slip all the ones and zeroes.
The book cover — here on Amazon — has its roots in an ongoing war of words between Theodore Beale, self-styled as Vox Day, and John Scalzi. I will spare you an assessment of who started it or who is continuing it. Nor will I discuss at any length how I generally like Scalzi and his writing (though he's considerably to the left of me) and how I hold Beale and his admirers in low esteem. That's my bias.
Some time ago, Scalzi wrote an essay in the voice of a rapist thanking conservative politicians who seek to limit the ability of rape victims to secure abortions. Nobody rational could interpret it as Scalzi admitting to rape. Whether you agree with it or not, it's clearly a satirical broadside against a particular political viewpoint that parses which rapes are "legitimate" and which aren't.
Beale and his admirers, as a rhetorical device, launched a tendentious and tiresome meme treating the piece as serious and accusing Scalzi of actually having done the things he talked about in the satirical piece. Scalzi discussed it here.
Amazon self-publishing has become a popular method of pandering to audiences. Recently various figures have begun publishing elaborate manuals on how brave people can stand up to the terrible Social Justice Warriors who will mock and criticize them and such. To me this is a paradox: if you need a manual to stand up, no manual will help you. But never mind that. This e-book — titled "John Scalzi is a Rapist," and echoing various memes that Beale followers like — is part of that trend.
Here's why it's almost certainly protected parody.
Only a statement of fact can be defamatory. “Rhetorical hyperbole,” “vigorous epithet,” “lusty and imaginative expression of contempt,” and language used “in a loose, figurative sense” are all protected by the First Amendment. (Greenbelt Pub. Assn. v. Bresler (1970) 398 U.S. 6, 14.)
How do you tell the difference? A court will look at the "totality of the circumstances" — that is, not just the statement in isolation, but all the facts and circumstances surrounding and leading to it. The court will also look at the statement in the context in which it was made, not in the abstract. Finally, the court will look at the statement from the perspective of the audience to which it was directed, taking that audience's knowledge and understanding into account. (Seelig v. Infinity Broadcasting Corp. (2002) 97 Cal.App.4th 798, 809-10.)
That's why satire and parody are protected even when directed at a fairly narrow audience. For instance, when the proprietors of WorldNetDaily sued Esquire for a parody suggesting they were withdrawing one of their birther tomes, Esquire won because the piece was viewed from the perspective of someone familiar with Esquire's history of satire and WorldNetDaily's history of nuttery, not from the perspective of a person encountering all these figures for the first time. Similarly, my post about the case is protected satire even though I made up excerpts from the D.C. Circuit opinion suggesting that WorldNetDaily staff routinely molests walruses.
Many other factors also contribute to determining whether something should be treated as hyperbole, insult, and satire or as a statement of fact. Those include the tone (measured tones are more likely to be taken as fact, fiery and bombastic tones as opinion), anonymity (anonymous or pseudonymous statements are less likely to be treated as factual), the formality, the intelligibility, whether it is labeled as fact, whether the author suggests a basis for knowledge or evidence to support the statement, whether the statement is specific rather than general, and whether the statement is in the context of a dispute that one would expect to generate heated rhetoric. California courts have recognized that internet dwellers are less likely to view statements online as assertions of actual fact, especially when they are in a forum known for bloviating. That doesn't mean that everything on the internet is automatically opinion rather than fact: things on the internet can still be treated as fact when they contain factors like assertions of lack of bias, assertions of specialized knowledge, labeling as fact, specifics, signals of reliability and factual nature, etc. (Bentley Reserve L.P. v. Papaliolios (2013) 218 Cal.App.4th 418, 433.)
So. If someone wrote an article saying "Ken White's legal analysis should be disregarded because dresses up in a rubber suit on the weekend and hunts ponies with a handmade crossbow," and says it on their trash-talking blog, to an audience that knows them and knows about my blogging here, it's almost certainly parody, because the relevant audiences would be familiar with our in-joke about responding to spam emails with rants about ponies and would therefore not take it seriously.
The Facts Here
Here the factors point very strongly to the book being treated as parody, and protected by the First Amendment, rather than as a defamatory statement of fact. With all respect to Scalzi, his question is wrong: you can't analyze the book title in isolation. You have to look at it in the context of the whole. In that context, the intended audience (both fans of Beale and fans of Scalzi) would recognize it as a reference to Beale's tiresome meme. Plus, the Amazon description explicitly labels it as "a blazingly inventive parody," and the descriptive text is mostly nonsensical and evocative of ridicule of "SJW" concerns, and references some of the topics that anger Beale's coterie in connection with Scalzi like the Hugo Awards.
I think this one is protected parody, and I don't think it's a very close call.
Could the meme be defamatory if uttered in a different context? Yes, potentially.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
- About Clark Being "Purged" From Popehat - May 24th, 2017
- The Dubious "Anthony Weiner's Accuser Was Actually Over 16" Story, And Why I'm Very Skeptical - May 22nd, 2017
- Lawsplainer: The Remarkable Anthony Weiner Guilty Plea - May 19th, 2017
- The Elaborate Pantomime of The Federal Guilty Plea - May 8th, 2017
- A Disturbing In-Flight Experience - May 1st, 2017