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That Defamation Suit Against John Oliver Has Been Dismissed, So Let’s Watch His Coal Segment One More Time!

Back in June of 2017, we found out that John Oliver, HBO, and Partially Important Productions had been sued for a Last Week Tonight segment about the coal industry. As part of that segment, Oliver spent a good deal of time on the behavior of Bob Murray, the CEO of Murray Energy Corporation, and so Murray sued HBO and Oliver for a “meticulously planned attempt to assassinate [his] character and reputation.” This was not a huge surprise. Oliver himself noted in the segment that Murray Energy had sent a cease-and-desist letter when they reached out for comment, and as The Washington Post noted at the time, “Murray is known for aggressively suing journalists and media organizations that run critical content about him and his companies.”

Oliver and HBO filed motions to dismiss the case, based on two arguments: (1) that the West Virginia courts did not have jurisdiction, and (2) that the plaintiffs “do not come close to satisfying the legal requirements” for a defamation claim. Judge Jeffrey D. Cramer has dismissed the case on the basis of that second claim.

According to their submitted brief on the issue, Oliver, HBO, and Partially Important Productions contended that Murray’s complaint “disregards long-settled First Amendment and common law protections for the two types of speech challenged here: accurate reporting on government activity, and commentary and satire on matters of public concern.”

As far as the accurate reporting, HBO and Partially Important Productions argued that they were relying on factual reports, and that while Murray Energy argued they had used some quotes “out of context,” the brief says: “If anything, the ‘context’ that Plaintiffs claim Defendants omitted included findings that were even more damaging to Murray Energy — such as the finding that its subsidiary mine operator GRI ‘failed to revise its mining plan following coal bursts … but rather continued to mine coal in areas with unsafe conditions.”

And as for the satire and Oliver’s other jokes, the brief argues that “many of Plaintiffs’ allegations boil down to hurt feelings about jokes. They complain that the coal story ‘childishly demeaned and disparaged them,’ poked fun at Murray’s age and appearance, and generally caused Murray embarrassment and stress. But the fact that Murray found this speech embarrassing or disagreeable does not remove it from the broad protection of the First Amendment.”

Judge Cramer apparently agreed with this analysis, writing in his letter, “I find the arguments set forth in the Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim and Reply well-founded, [and] appropriate in this matter.”

Yay, First Amendment!

(via The Hollywood Reporter; image: screengrab)

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