First Amendment

Coal company accuses judge of 'flagrant disregard of the law' for siding with John Oliver

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A state court judge has decided to dismiss a defamation suit filed against John Oliver over a satirical segment on the cable television program Last Week Tonight that criticized a coal company and its CEO for their treatment of workers.

Judge Jeffrey Cramer of Moundsville, West Virginia, informed lawyers in a letter last Wednesday that he planned to dismiss the suit based on arguments advanced by lawyers for Oliver and HBO, which airs his show. The Hollywood Reporter, Ars Technica and the Los Angeles Times covered Cramer’s decision.

The plaintiffs had included Murray Energy and its CEO Bob Murray. In a statement, the company accused Cramer of “a flagrant disregard of the law” and promised a speedy appeal.

Oliver said during an episode of the show in June that Murray Energy illustrates the divide that can exist between a coal company’s interests and its workers. He said he had received a cease-and-desist letter from the company, so he wouldn’t say that Bob Murray looks like a geriatric Dr. Evil—the character played by comedian Mike Myers in the Austin Powers film series—“even though he clearly does.”

Oliver went on to criticize a decision by Murray Energy to give bonuses to employees based on the amount of coal they extracted. Some employees had followed the company’s suggestion to write “void” on their checks if they had safety objections to the plan, Oliver said. And some added their own messages such as “Eat shit, Bob,” according to Oliver.

Oliver then referred to an apocryphal tale that Murray had started his company after a squirrel approached him and said he should be operating his own mines. At the end of the segment, a giant squirrel called Mr. Nutterbutter delivered a message to Murray that includes the “eat shit” message.

The American Civil Liberties Union had filed a snarky brief supporting Oliver last August. “It is a basic concept of free speech that you do not get to sue media organizations because you don’t like their coverage,” the brief says. “It is frankly shocking that plaintiffs were able to find attorneys willing to file a lawsuit that is so obviously unconstitutional.”

Murray Energy remains undeterred. “This decision contains absolutely no legal reasoning whatsoever, and instead blindly adopts the defendants deeply flawed arguments. This is a flagrant disregard of the law, the facts, and the substantial damages intentionally inflicted by the defendants,” according to a statement from the company.

“We will immediately appeal, and we are confident that we will prevail.”

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