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October 22, 2010 3:33 PM The Difference Between Satire and Libel at Syracuse

By Daniel Luzer

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The (apparent) writer of one Syracuse University Law School blog is now under investigation for harassment. Apparently some people think a satirical website constitutes harassment. According to a piece by Dara McBride in the school’s student newspaper, the Daily Orange:

SUCOLitis, a WordPress blog, began publishing online at the beginning of October. A group of second- and third-year law students write on the website with the goal of entertaining those in SU’s College of Law, according to the blog. But some officials and students at the law school are calling for the site to be removed and for legal action to be taken against the author.
The blog features topics like “Class of 2013 Named Most Attractive in History” and “Senate President Elected SU’s Sexiest Semite.” Fake quotes and content are used throughout the blog entries and generally are attributed to students or faculty of the law school. Some posts include made-up names.

Syracuse says that second-year law student Len Audaer writes the blog. Gregory Germain, a Syracuse Law professor, objects to the website, complaining that it’s “designed to be offensive.” It’s also clearly fake, however. According to the McBride article:

A disclaimer on the blog states it is a satirical publication, not a news blog, and no actual news stories appear on the site. The site will not show up in search engines, so students do not need to worry about potential employers finding their names associated with the site, according to the disclaimer.

The website (sadly now password protected) does not constitute “an issue of free speech, Germain said, because the site is libelous and there are limitations to individual rights.” Audaer faces expulsion.

Now I’m no lawyer, but this seems like a very creative interpretation of libel. According to the Media Law Resource Center:

In order for the person about whom a statement is made to recover for libel, the false statement must be defamatory, meaning that it actually harms the reputation of the other person, as opposed to being merely insulting or offensive.

Furthermore, the troublesome statement must be “reasonably understood as stating actual facts.” As the Supreme Court determined in 1988’s Hustler v. Falwell, it’s not libel if sensible people wouldn’t take the claims to be factually accurate. And presumably that line about how the blog is satirical would seem to take care of that little problem.

Still, Germain complains, “Is it normal for blogs to be put up that ridicule certain students’ character?”

Well yes. Yes it is. That’s what happens with satire.

While there doesn’t really appear to be any case here at all, it’s worth pointing out that Syracuse, as a private institution, has its own speech policies and is under no legal requirement to actually uphold the First Amendment. Let’s see how this one turns out.

Audaer is a British citizen. If he is expelled from Syracuse he would likely be deported back to England; his visa requires him to be a full-time student. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer