Satire and Parody: the Salt and Pepper of Protected Speech

January 13, 2015 | Charles Bowen

Since it was adopted in 1791, the First Amendment has granted Americans the very well-known (and often misunderstood) right of free speech. Though not absolute, this freedom is one of the most fiercely-protected privileges we enjoy and has long been a pillar of American democracy. Over the years, this right has been extended through both laws and court decisions to offer protection for many different avenues of expression, including political, religious and commercial speech. What is often unappreciated by their targets, however, is that satire and parody are also entitled to full constitutional protection. Though the satire and parody may be outrageous, irreverent, critical or even in poor taste, it is important to note that subjects (particularly public figures) have no legal recourse against the author unless the satire or parody contains a provably false fact and is published with actual malice. Although often used interchangeably, there is a distinction between satire and parody.



Satire is the use of humor, irony, exaggeration or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues. 


Example of political satire: Thomas Nast's depiction of NYC's Boss Tweed


Parody is an imitation of the style of a particular writer, artist or genre with deliberate exaggeration for comic effect.  

Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988) is often cited as a landmark case in which the United States Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment's free speech guarantee prohibits awarding damages to public figures to compensate for emotional distress intentionally inflicted upon them. Central to the decision is the distinction that reasonable people will not interpret parody or satire to contain factual claims. Commercial speech, on the other hand, can be lawfully restricted in order to avoid misleading consumers. Ironically, the more unbelievable, outrageous or inflammatory the satire or parody, the more likely it will be protected. More tips can be found here.  

Despite over 200 years of interpretation and legal decisions, questions of free speech continue to be constant topics of news and discussion:

  • Fair use of copyrighted material, example: Recently, blogger and political writer Bob Cesca was targeted by Sarah Palin's media group, TAPP TV, for posting several excerpts of videos from Ms. Palin's pay website.

  • Council Member Kirby Delauter demanded the Frederick News-Post and one of their journalists, Bethany Rodgers, no longer use his name in any publications.  Here was their response.

  • Violence (Je Suis Charlie) and threats of violence (The Interview) due to religious or political satire and parody.

While the freedom to engage in satire and parody is often taken for granted in America, it is actually a rare commodity in much of the rest of the world. Recent world events have made it clear that the freedom to lampoon and ridicule should be rigorously defended just like every other form of free speech.  In the words of George Washington:  “If the freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led like sheep to the slaughter.”

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