Company’s attempt to stifle satire fails

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Press releases aren’t always what they seem.

In the rush to post content online, journalists have to take special care with even the most authentic-looking documents or run the risk of publishing a spoof.

These fake announcements, often bearing the name and logo of a real organization or company, are usually pranks designed to make a political point.

But what recourse does a lampooned company have when it’s the subject of one of these stunts? Can it successfully sue?

U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball in Utah provided some answers yesterday in dismissing a lawsuit filed by Koch Industries, which was also seeking subpoenas that would help it identify the authors of the fake press release.

The case stemmed from a fake website touting a press release in which Koch Industries reportedly did an about-turn in its philosophy about climate change.  Koch usually uses its website to question the existence of global warming and to criticize the Obama administration’s environmental efforts.

The fake press release announced that Koch had decided to stop funding organizations that deny climate change. As Judge Kimball noted, “such sentiments were in stark contrast to the policy viewpoints usually expressed by Koch.”

It appears that no one in the news media was taken in. The shift in policy was so preposterous that it was immediately and widely recognized as a hoax.

Koch sought damages against a group known only as Youth for Climate Truth, an environmental organization concerned about the world climate, alleging that the fake press release and website infringed on its trademark and violated a law prohibiting registering domain names with bad intent. Koch also alleged that the group had gained unauthorized access to Koch’s site by copying its logo.

Kimball found no merit to these arguments, pointing out that the lampoon was done to make a political point, not a profit, and that the group only repurposed what was already publicly available on the Web.

The “press release and fake website did not relate to any goods or services and were only political in nature,” Kimball wrote.

In addition to dismissing the lawsuit, the judge reaffirmed that courts should not issue subpoenas that can be used to unmask anonymous individuals unless the lawsuit is substantive. That means no fishing expeditions without a legitimate case.

The decision reinforces the value of satirical speech and serves as a reminder that political speech has a high level of First Amendment protection.

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