The satirical newspaper The Onion caused some confusion on Thursday when its messages on the service Twitter described gunfire in the U.S. Capitol building, but media lawyers said today The Onion probably doesn’t have to worry about any legal fallout.
The Onion is well established as satire, the lawyers said, and even though some readers and commentators have criticized the tweets for not being clear or for lacking taste, the First Amendment would likely preclude any claims against the outlet.
“If there’s liability, perhaps it’s just for not being funny enough,” said Robert Corn-Revere, a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine in Washington.
The tweets promoted a story on The Onion’s website about Congress taking a group of schoolchildren hostage. Some tweets linked to the story, but others simply described gunfire or children taken hostage. Any confusion could be compounded when a reader passes on a tweet to his own followers via a “retweet,” because the original source of the information may not be immediately clear.
It was the retweets that caused the U.S. Capitol Police to investigate the matter briefly on Thursday. A police spokeswoman, Sgt. Kimberly Schneider, wrote in an e-mail today that the inquiry ended quickly after police confirmed the origin of the reports. Schneider wrote that police did not investigate The Onion itself, and so far there have been no reports of any civil claims filed against the newspaper.
Cahill Gordon & Reindel partner Floyd Abrams said it’s difficult to think of any legal consequences.
“If their publication had resulted in cars crashing en route to the supposed place where the kidnappings allegedly occurred, or collapse of parents of children, it’s conceivable that one could think about a civil claim,” Abrams said. One claim, for example, might be intentional infliction of emotional injury, but even such a case “would run into serious First Amendment challenges,” he said.
Corn-Revere said there were civil claims filed after Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds,” which caused some listeners to believe there was an alien invasion in progress. Those claims failed, he said. “I don’t know how far a satirical publication has to go to remind people that this is satire,” he said. Anyone confused by The Onion’s tweets, he added, could easily confirm they were satire using any number of resources online.
A third lawyer, Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, had a gentle suggestion for The Onion: be a little more obvious in Twitter messages, in case they are retweeted. “I think it would be in The Onion’s interest to make it clear within the text of what they’re tweeting that they are the source,” she said.
The Onion’s editor, Joe Randazzo, released a statement on Thursday saying in part: “If there’s a lesson that can be learned from all of this, it is that the First Amendment in the wrong journalists’ hands is a very dangerous thing. We will continue to report on this incident, as well as the hundreds of more despicable acts Congress commits every day.”