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How does Seth MacFarlane/Family Guy/Fox get away with defamatory words/depictions that harm the reputation of brands/companies/logos/mascots/characters/real people?

Or, do they get sued a lot and just deal with it?

I want to write a book with corporate characters but don't want to have lawsuits showing up at my front door. What do I do to avoid lawsuits?

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Note: this can vary by jurisdiction.

Defamation in General

Defamation can be libel, which is written, or slander, which is spoken. In order to prove you are the victim of defamation, you must show that the statement that allegedly defamed you was:

  • published
  • false
  • injurious, and
  • unprivileged

Published means that some third party (other than you and the individual who allegedly defamed you) saw or heard the statement that allegedly defamed you. This can be achieved through media as varied as a newspaper, a picket sign, or even in conversation.

The truth is not subject to suit for defamation. It doesn’t matter how mean something is, if it is true, you can’t sue. Thus, the statement made must have been objectively false (therefore protecting opinions).

You must show how your reputation was hurt by the statement. Being ostracized in your community, losing work, being harassed by reporters, are examples of ways to show the statement was injurious to you.

Finally, there are certain situations where the importance of free speech is even more important than usual to make a speaker’s statement be considered as “privileged.” For example, it is so important for a witness in a trial to be frank and open in their testimony that it is recognized they should not feel constrained by worrying about whether they will get sued for defamation. Thus, a witness who falsely testified to something in court or a deposition is not subject to defamation suits. Obviously, prosecution for perjury is possible if they testify to something they know is false.

The Public Figure

You are talking about the Family Guy and other TV shows which make fun of politicians and other well-known people from Kelsey Grammar to Whoopi Goldberg. Because the value we put on the ability to criticize our government and those we elect to it, as well as all publicly influential people in general, the people Family Guy, etc., make fun of, public figures, have a higher bar to reach when it comes to proving defamation.

A public figure is someone

who has gained prominence in the community as a result of his or her name or exploits, whether willingly or unwillingly.

Easy examples of this can include politicians, CEOs, NFL quarterbacks, or movie stars. However, certainly, depending on jurisdiction and context, certainly regional or local level individuals may at times be considered public figures.

To prevail in a case alleging defamation, a public figure has to prove the above-mentioned four elements and, additionally, must show that the person who made the statement was acting with “actual malice.” This rule derives from the Supreme Court case New York Times v. Sullivan where SCOTUS described the reasoning as deriving from

a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.

Thus, a private person claiming defamation has more protection as a victim than a public figure does as a victim. When people put themselves out there for any reason, they are causing themselves to become a matter of public interest and subject to scrutiny. A private person should not have to walk around with the same burden on his mind because he has not likewise put himself out there. That said, the private person may be “pushed” into the public sphere without his consent due to other occurrences that drew the public’s attention to him.

The Limited Purpose Public Figure

Finally, a person may be a limited purpose public figure where he has purposely and noticeably put himself out there in some public controversy with the purpose of influencing the controversy’s outcome. An example is a church pastor who decries abortion because “he thrust himself to the forefront of a particular controversy in order to influence the resolution of the issue.” Another is a local expert on suicide because that person “distinguished herself in this particular field.” Limited purpose public figures must also show “actual malice” to prevail in a defamation suit.

Parody/Satire

These forms of communication, despite containing statements that may be intentionally injurious and/or offenses, are protected under the notion of political commentary. Satire and parody are protected, “provided a reasonable reader would not mistake the statements as describing actual facts.” So, someone who is the subject of parody of satire cannot sue “unless the irreverent comments contain a provably false fact.” In addition, they must also prove the “actual malice” element and the four original elements.

Various factors go into deciding whether something is parody or satire and it is a reasonableness test where none of those factors are subject to an absolute requirement or subject to a certain level.

For context, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press provides a non-exhaustive list of examples of actions reporters can take when publishing parody and satire, noting again that no single item below must be included and the presence of one of them does not provide an absolute defense.

  • Is the content at issue separated or labeled to indicate it is not straight news?
  • Does the irreverent tone exist throughout the piece?
  • Does the publication have a history of producing satire or parody? For example, the difference between The Onion and cnn.com.
  • Are there illogical or over-the-top situations or actions in the piece?
  • Are there fictitious names that are similar to real ones? Such as, “Don Drumpft” and “Plaidimir Vutin” (which I’ve actually seen somewhere once!).
  • If this is based on a specific event, how soon after or long after was the content published? If the event is still in the public memory vs. if it has long been forgotten.
  • Is there a disclaimer indicating it satire or parody? Note that a disclaimer must be reasonably visible and accessible to the average reader.

Content seen on shows like the Family Guy are a) usually against public figures and b) usually sufficiently done in a context that conveys the fact that it is satire or parody. Therefore, suits against the show’s creators simply do not (or are very rare and even more rarely successful) do not materialize.

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    "Limited purpose public figures must also show “actual malice” to prevail in a defamation suit." - Provided that the defamation is somehow related to that limited purpose. If you accuse the suicide expert of robbing the local bank, that has nothing to do with the controversy he inserted himself into, and actual malice isn't required. – D M Mar 18 '18 at 23:48

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