First Amendment

Snarky, profane ACLU brief supports John Oliver against coal company CEO

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John Oliver/Ovidiu Hrubaru (

The American Civil Liberties Union has a message for Murray Energy CEO Bob Murray: “You can’t sue people for being mean to you, Bob.”

The West Virginia ACLU filed an amicus brief in a defamation suit Murray filed against John Oliver for his June segment on the coal industry and its treatment of workers in a monologue on his HBO program, Last Week Tonight. Vanity Fair calls the brief “hilarious,” while LawNewz calls it the “snarkiest legal brief ever.” Slate and the Hollywood Reporter also have stories.

During the show, Oliver said Murray illustrates the divide that can exist between a coal company’s interests and its workers. Oliver went on to say he needed to be cautious, because after his show contacted Murray Energy for comment, the show received a cease and desist letter warning there would be immediate litigation if the show defamed, harassed or otherwise injured Murray or Murray Energy.

Oliver said that, because he needed to be cautious, 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. Employees who objected based on safety were told if they didn’t like the plan, then they could write “void” on their checks. Oliver said. Several employees actually did that, also including messages on their checks saying “Kiss my ass, Bob” and “Eat shit, Bob,” Oliver said.

Oliver also referred to an apocryphal tale about how Murray’s company got its start. The claim was that Murray was once approached by a squirrel who told him he should be operating his own mines.

At the end of the segment, a giant squirrel called Mr. Nutterbutter, delivers a message to Murray on a check that represents the money available in the event of a lawsuit. The check says, “Eat shit, Bob” and “Kiss my ass.”

The ACLU brief pokes fun at the lawsuit and criticizes the lawyers who filed it.

“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.”

With regard to the Dr. Evil remark, the brief says, truth is an absolute defense to defamation. The brief includes side-by-side photos of Murray and Myers as Dr. Evil.

In a portion of the brief captioned “Anyone Can Legally Say ‘Eat Shit Bob,’” the ACLU calls the case “beyond meritless” and “offensive to the very ideals of free speech.”

“It is apt that one of plaintiffs’ objections to the show is about a human-sized squirrel named Mr. Nutterbutter, because this case is nuts,” the brief says. “Which also begs the question: is Mr. Nutterbutter one of the 50 Doe Defendants included in this action?”

The episode of Last Week Tonight in question:

Updated at 2:47 p.m. to include video.

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