You would think most married people know – “don’t piss off your mother-in-law.” You would think that’s rule numero uno in the Ten Commandments of Marriage. But it seems comedian Sunda Croonquist was out the day they covered that in pre-nup class. You see, Croonquist is a comedian, who often makes fun of her in-laws; that’s how she makes her living. (Just imagine holiday dinners ’round the Croonquist table!)
Now, Croonquist is half Swedish and half black….she was raised Catholic and married a Jewish attorney (and she converted to Judiasm prior to marriage). OK, I know, that is just ripe for parody in itself. Croonquist knows that and she jumped all over it but the in-laws didn’t like it and after sucking it up for 15 years, now they’re suing her in their home state of New Jersey. They’re seeking damages and want her to remove all references from her blog that make the family readily identifiable. Are they serious? As if filing a federal lawsuit, which is a public record, will keep their name a secret! Sorry, Zafrin family but that horse has left the barn.
It’s going to be tough to win this fight. The in-laws are seeking damages for the torts of libel and slander. However, comedians are generally protected under the First Amendment by use of a parody defense. The U.S. Supreme Court set the standard in 1988 in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, (485 U.S. 46 (1988) in which the magazine published a false ad claiming evangelical pastor Jerry Falwell had an incestuous relationship with his mother in an outhouse. The high court, in its infinite wisdom, said the spoof was so ridiculous as to be incredulous and since no one would believe it, the author could not be liable. True, Falwell was a public figure and had to prove actual malice for a finding of libel, while The Zafrin Family are not public figures and merely have to prove negligence. However, in Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., 497 U.S. 1 (1990), SCOTUS protected parody under the free speech of the U.S. Constitution, holding that where an assertion is so ridiculous as to actually be believed it is protected “assuring that public debate will not suffer for lack of “imaginative expression.”
There is also a question here as to whether the Zafrin Family is beyond the statute of limitations for libel and slander claims, beyond which point a plaintiff cannot sue. In New Jersey, the statute of limitations is just one year and that state adheres to the so-called “single publication rule” for Internet content, meaning one-year from the date first posted online, even if it lingers in cyberspace for years. (Churchill v. State of New Jersey, 378 N.J. Super. 471, 876 A. 2d 311 (NJ Super. Ct. App. Div. 2005) So, I’m wondering, how do they get over that hump since Croonquist started her routine 15 years ago?
Croonquist’s attorney has filed a motion to dismiss. The hearing is set for September 8th………oh yeah, did I mention, her husband is defending her against his own family? I think there’s more to this conflict than just a comedy routine! Oivay!