Cartoonist Battles Frivolous Lawsuits with Comedic Protest

The Oatmeal, a website that features the work of cartoonist and programmer Matthew Inman, has been entangled in a legal dispute with the attorney of competitor Funny Junk, a comedy site that posts user-uploaded images. After exercising his First Amendment right to make a statement against copyright infringement that was taking place on Funny Junk’s website, Inman received a cease and desist letter from Funny Junk attorney Charles Carreon. Inman’s hilarious response to the cease and desist letter raised more than $200,000 for charity but led to a series of frivolous lawsuits from Carreon. The lawsuits have been dismissed, but the case could have had legal implications for anyone — including cartoonists — who decided to exercise their First Amendment rights by criticizing a company in a public forum.

The EFF relates the basic details of the case:

Attorney Charles Carreon dropped his bizarre lawsuit against The Oatmeal creator Matthew Inman today, ending his strange legal campaign against Inman’s humorous and creative public criticism of a frivolous cease and desist letter that Carreon wrote on behalf of his client Funny Junk.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and co-counsel Venkat Balasubramani represented Inman in the case. While Carreon’s lawsuit was purportedly about whether Inman’s online fundraising campaign for the American Cancer Society and the National Wildlife Federation complies with California regulations, it was really a classic SLAPP – a strategic lawsuit against public participation.

The lawsuit stemmed from a 2011 blogpost by The Oatmeal founder, Mathew Inman, that condemned Funny Junk for posting his and others’ materials without proper attribution, according to an article on the EFF website detailing the case. A year following the blogpost, Carreon, Funny Junk’s hired lawyer, served Inman with a letter claiming defamation.

After The Oatmeal posted an annotated critique of Carreon’s cease and desist letters, and after crafting a creatively cavalier fundraiser called “Operation BearLove Good, Cancer Bad,” which benefited the American Cancer Society and National Wildlife Foundation in response the letters. Ingman raised more than $200,000 for the charities. In response, Carreon sued The Oatmeal, the NWF and the ACS, claiming defamation among other things. (For more information on the fundraiser, click here for a June 13 article on The Guardian website by Arwa Mahdawi.)

Despite the claim that the lawsuit concerned disputed compliance with California’s fundraising laws, the lawsuit is interpreted as a way to suppress free speech according to the EFF:

“Matthew Inman spoke out against Carreon’s threat of a frivolous lawsuit, in a very popular and very public way,” said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Kurt Opsahl. “This was nothing more than a meritless attempt to punish Inman for calling attention to his legal bullying. We called him out on this in our briefs, so it’s no surprise that Carreon was left with no choice but to dismiss.”

Click here for the EFF article discussing the implications of Carreon v. Inman.

SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) lawsuits are often used to suppress the free speech rights of individuals and companies with limited resources. A larger organization will force the defendant to comply with the threat of a lawsuit, simply by having greater resources and a greater willingness to take the lawsuit to court and incurring major and often debilitating expense on the part of the defendant. As a result, many of the defendants in such cases will remove or apologize for the statement that the plaintiffs found offensive, even if the statement is protected by the First Amendment and in no way illegal. Many states have anti-SLAPP legislation, but such protections don’t exist for everyone.

Criticism, opinion, and satire are not legal justifications for defamation claims. Therefore, fallible legal threats to The Oatmeal is a disconcerting instance of attempted suppression of free speech. Not everybody is capable of publicly scoffing such legal threats with highly-successful fundraising campaigns and contemplative coverage and support from the press, but everyone is capable of supporting unbounded free speech and organizations like the CBLDF.

Please help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work and reporting on issues such as this by making a donation or becoming a member of the CBLDF!

Justin Brown is a journalism graduate of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania and is currently enrolled in Point Park University’s journalism and mass communications graduate program.