Freedom of Expression This week it has been reported that an English stand-up comedian has launched a website to raise money to defend a defamation action being taken against her by her estranged husband

According to Louise Beaumont, her ex-husband is suing her for defamation out of jokes she made about him in one of her routines.

Interestingly UK law has changed recently and it is most likely that this case will be heard before a Judge rather than a jury.  In this case, it might all come down to the sense of humour of the Judge in the case.

The questions that the court will ask are whether the words are capable of bearing a defamatory meaning, whether they are understood as true, and whether in fact they are true, or honest opinion based on truth.

The Honest Opinion here is the defence that might, according to the Judge’s sense of humour, exonerate the comedian in this case.

Comedians being sued for defamation is no laughing matter!  Satire and comedy are important modes of expression and often allow engagement by the citizens in a larger discussion often about taboo issues, such as divorce or about political issues such as President Trump.

President Trump is someone who has openly discussed removing or at least limiting the Rights of Free Expression contained in the US Constitution, because he does not like what people are saying about him.

There is currently no story defence for comedians or satires in Irish Law and any arguments about Freedom of Expression are to be tempered by the right to sue for defamation contained in the Defamation Act and other Statues.

This is an issue that has concerned some media solicitors especially those who act for high-profile entertainers and comedians. The right not just to express but to ridicule is essential for a functioning democracy.

The fear and apprehension of commentators and performers and the extreme caution exercised by publishers and broadcasters will limit the right to Freedom of Expression.  Regardless of the merits of a defence, the expense of mounting a defence no matter how bona fides will often mean that publishers will not take the risk and even artists themselves are conscious of their financial exposure.

Crowley Millar have made submissions to the Department of Justice that the Defamation Act be amended to protect comedians and satirists, and at least alleviate the pressure of having to comply with defamation laws when also trying to be funny.

The Submission suggests in the event of a defamation action against a comedic sketch or a satiric statement, the Courts or an alternative quasi-judicial body should be empowered to make an order (effectively an order of the absurd) that same should be dismissed without the expense of a harrowing trial.

Satire by its very nature should act as a marker against the rich and powerful, it should be an equaliser in society.  In the case of Louise Beaumont, things are slightly different and the challenge for the courts is whether her ex-husband has the right to his good name as opposed to the comedians’ right to Freedom of Expression.  This will be an interesting case to follow.

By Simon Carty of Crowley Millar.