First Amendment and fair use doctrine at issue
How's this for audacity: Spew hateful venom against a minority group and then, when the group protests by calling for an advertising boycott, sue for copyright infringement because the group quoted your words.
As someone who did research into hate crimes a few years back, I've been following trends in hate-related violence. Ever since 9/11, we've seen increasing targeting of Arab Americans, Muslims, and people who are mistaken for Arabs or Muslims (such as Sikhs, Iranians and even Mexicans). That's partly because when a minority group is openly maligned, it sends a message to rageful and disempowered young men that it's OK to act out against that group.
A perfect exemplar of incendiary hate-mongering is extremist nut Michael Savage, whose syndicated radio show "Savage Nation" has about 8 million listeners on 400 stations. His anti-Muslim vitriol is blood-chilling (don’t take my word for it – listen here or here).
Rather than silently accepting Savage's abuse, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) called on advertisers to stand up for human rights by withdrawing support from Savage. Several large corporations, including Wal-Mart, AT&T, and Sears, reportedly heeded the call, costing Savage $1 million or more by his estimate.
Savage responded by suing CAIR for copyright infringement. Even more preposterously, he accused the group of racketeering, claiming it poses as a civil rights organization but is actually a "mouthpiece of international terror" that helped to fund the 9/11 attacks.
This is not the first time the rabid Savage has tried to use the courts to stifle free speech. With the civil court system increasingly off limits to all but the wealthy, he and his Talk Radio Network have the money to hire lawyers and go after critics left and right; in 2003 they went after Take Back the Media, SavageStupidity.com and MichaelSavageSucks.com on similar grounds. (A pdf of that lawsuit is posted here.)
I can hardly imagine a better example than CAIR's of "fair use," a legal doctrine stemming from the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that allows portions of copyrighted material to be reprinted for purposes of (among other things) scholarly debate, criticism, or parody.
To her credit, a federal judge said on Friday that she agrees with much of the anti-defamation group's legal defense under the First Amendment and that she will likely dismiss the lawsuit. Unfortunately the judge said she may allow Savage to modify the lawsuit and file it again.
I sure hope the Honorable Susan Illuston follows through and bars this vicious hate-monger from misusing the civil process to stop legitimate - indeed crucial - criticism.
Today's San Francisco Chronicle has coverage. See more commentary at "Crooks and Liars."