An appeals court in Ohio has recently affirmed a trial court’s decision in favor of a satirical website, DelawareOhioNews.com, which was sued for defamation by a prominent restaurateur, Corso Ventures LLC (now known as One Hospitality Group in Columbus, Ohio) and Christopher J. Corso.
The dispute centered on whether the statements made in three articles published on the website in January 2020 were defamatory. The website, owned by Subvertical Limited and operated by pseudonymous author Ricardo Paye, is characterized as a “satirical website” that publishes fictional stories to “poke fun” at issues of local or national interest and contains an “about us” section that states:
“Delaware Ohio News is an online news and content source dedicated to Delaware, Ohio. Founded in the year 1808, we strive to be Delaware’s premier news source, second only to the illustrious Delaware Gazette. Although we were the first Delaware, Ohio newspaper, they remain the lords of Delaware news media. That’s why we’re suicidal and on so many drugs. With all of that said, everything on this website is made up. Do not rely on anything said here.”
The articles in question were written in response to a local news report about the dress code established by Short North Food Hall, a restaurant in Columbus. The dress code was seen as discriminatory towards black customers.
The articles, entitled “Corso Ventures’ Newest Bar, Nigghers, Coming to Short North This Fall,” “Short North Food Hall Literally Just Googled ‘How to Keep Black People Out of Bars,’ ” and “White Wednesdays at Short North Food Hall,” mocked the dress code and the restaurant.
The articles appeared on the website surrounded by other headlines that Jordan characterizes as satirical, such as “Socially Distanced July 4th Parade Will be 86 Miles Long, Last 40 Hours,” “Delaware County Prosecutor Believes Evidence is Overrated,” “VA Patients to Share Prosthetics After Kasich Denies Funds,” and “Ohio Gov. John Kasich Legalizes Exhumation of Confederate Soldiers Statewide.”
In response to the publications of the articles, Corso Ventures LLC and Christopher J. Corso, through counsel, wrote a letter to Paye and Subvertical Limited seeking to have the articles removed from the website.
When the appellees did not respond to the letter, they filed a complaint on June 11, 2020, alleging the articles were defamatory. Appellants described the articles as “highly offensive, outrageous, malicious, and hateful racist articles and publications about Plaintiff, its business, and its owner.”
The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, finding that the articles were protected speech in the form of parody or satire and therefore could not constitute defamation. The court found that the website clearly stated that all content was satirical and fictional and that the articles were protected by the First Amendment’s freedom of speech.
The appellate court agreed with the trial court’s decision, reasoning that whether certain statements alleged to be defamatory are actionable or not is a matter for the court to decide as a matter of law. The court noted that it is “clearly established” that parody is protected speech, and that the question was whether the articles were parodies and, therefore, protected speech.
The court applied a “reasonable reader” test and concluded that the articles, when read in context, could not reasonably have been interpreted as stating actual facts. The court stated that the genius of parody is that it comes close enough to reality to spark a moment of doubt in the reader’s mind before the reader realizes the joke.