The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution grants all citizens the right to free and open speech. This is especially true of people in the media talking about public figures. The news couldn’t be the news (and it couldn’t be as effective as it is) without the ability to speak freely about public figures.
John Oliver, who isn’t even an American citizen, appeared to understand this fact better than Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy.
Last summer, Oliver made fun of Murray on a segment of his show, Last Week Tonight, in which Oliver, among other things, compared Murray to a villain in a series of comedy movies. Not only did the allusion depict Murray as evil, but the comparison to a character people laugh at implied that he is weak and ineffective. Oliver acknowledged on the show that Murray would probably try to sue them over the segment, but that he would not take back anything he had said.
Murray has, in fact, had a long history of filing allegedly frivolous lawsuits against people and companies that criticize him. Most of those lawsuits have been dismissed or settled outside of court, and while such intimidation tactics might work with some people, HBO (which made a point of saying it stood by Oliver and his show) is hardly a David to Murray’s Goliath. HBO is a successful company in its own right, and like any other media company, it is well aware of its own rights under the American Constitution.
Murray responded by trying to file a temporary restraining order against any rebroadcasting of the episode (as if it that could stop people from watching the video online, where it already has more than 9 million views). That attempt was unsuccessful.
Murray also sent a cease and desist letter, threatening to sue Oliver, his TV show, and HBO for defamation. Far from backing down, Murray’s letter had the opposite effect. Oliver reaffirmed his previous statements regarding Murray and continued to make fun of him, his business practices, and his alleged hypocrisy.
Murray followed through on his threat to file a defamation lawsuit in West Virginia against Oliver and his team. In addition to the charge of defamation, and dramatic language that accused Oliver of carrying out a planned attack on Murray’s reputation and character, the lawsuit also alleged Oliver’s segment had shortened Murray’s life as a result of his “Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis.”
As expected, HBO filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, citing the First Amendment and claiming Murray and his legal team had failed to state a claim for their allegations against Oliver and HBO. Also as expected, Judge Cramer agreed with HBO that everything Oliver had said on his show was protected by the First Amendment. He, therefore, accepted the cable network’s motion with hardly any qualifications.
Oliver never stopped working on his show while the lawsuit was being filed, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see another Murray-related segment appear on his show, either now or later on down the line.
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