These days, many people consider political humorists to be as reliable as official, mainstream media outlets. Whether or not that idea is justified is a matter of opinion and usually involves preexisting political biases on both sides. However, a political comedian is now facing libel charges from the same coal kingpin as major newspapers. Both John Oliver, of Last Week Tonight, and The New York Times stepped on Murray Energy’s toes. The coal company – and the owner, Robert Murray – did not like the opinion of either the press or the comedian and have decided to sue.
It’s difficult to see Murray Energy’s case as anything worth the expense of a lawyer, however. Essentially, Mr. Murray doesn’t like the mocking tone John Oliver took on his show, but opinion and sarcasm are covered under First Amendment rights. Essentially, you can’t sue someone just because they made fun of you. If that were really illegal, pretty much every social media user ever to log into Twitter or Reddit would be facing a lawsuit. The only way Murray can win the case is by demonstrating that concrete facts were inaccurate, and then link those inaccuracies directly to actual losses. Part of Oliver’s segment on Murray Energy involved a fatal mine accident from several years ago. An official government investigation cited unapproved mining practices that could have destabilized the mine. Murray’s official report lays sole blame for the incident on a small earthquake. Since Oliver didn’t spend a lot of time presenting Murray’s side of the argument, the coal company insists Oliver intentionally left out key information. Whether a government report is more reliable than the word of the coal company trying to cut its losses seems fairly obvious. Regardless, telling only a few facts is still telling facts, which will make Murray’s case next to impossible to win.
HBO and Time Warner are sticking with Oliver and defending the show. Oliver’s trademark style involves peppering open, humorous criticism with a handful of facts is not unusual in the industry. By taking on a single comedian, Murray Energy is essentially challenging every political humorist to ever walk the earth.