Complimentary defamation 

(Posted by Sandeep)

As John mentioned below, we’ve both been kept busy in the last few weeks by plenty of law school work. Luckily, law is a rich source of fun linguistics topics.

In the course of researching cases for an upcoming paper, I found a 2005 case in which the famous stuntman and motorcyclist Evel Knievel sued ESPN for defamation. The issue in question was whether ESPN defamed Knievel by calling him a “pimp.” ESPN had posted a picture of Knievel posing with his wife and another woman, along with the caption, “Evel Knievel proves that you’re never too old to be a pimp.”

Evel Knievel was 67 years old in 2005, and he clearly saw ESPN’s characterization of him as a pimp — someone who manages prostitutes — as an attempt to tarnish his reputation. Sure, under those circumstances, who would want to be called a pimp because of a harmless photo with your wife and a friend? And, adding to the seriousness of the statement, being a pimp is a crime.

But as any teenager or 20-something knows, “pimp” is also often used as a compliment. According to Wiktionary, “pimp” in both slang and African-American Vernacular English also means “a man who easily attracts women.” For people in this age group, “pimp” is very often thrown around as a compliment to another guy. (Also, according to the court’s analysis, “pimp” can also be used “when complimenting a person on their mastery of the subject matter.”)

So was ESPN’s “pimp” comment a defamation or a compliment?

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit examined the case and found in favor of ESPN. The court explained that although “pimp” could be reasonably interpreted to have a defamatory meaning when read in isolation (yes, understandable), the context in which it appeared made it impossible to understand it as a defamation.

Ironically, it was most likely intended as a compliment. Knievel v. ESPN, 393 F.3d 1068, 1074 (2005).

They reasoned that there was no way that the language on ESPN could be interpreted by a reasonable person to mean something literal. A precedent established a few years earlier, in the case Underwager v. Channel 9 Australia, created a framework to understand whether a statement was defamatory. Basically, it boiled down to three elements:

1)  What is the general tenor of the work?
2) How much hyperbolic and figurative language is used, and what does the audience expect?
3) Is the statement sufficiently factual to be proven true or false?

The court acted unusually: it considered facts that were not alleged in the original complaint or contained in attached documents. It reasoned that the context of the alleged defamation was so important to the case that it needed to be examined. So on its own, the court examined the preceding and following pages on the ESPN website.

They found that the content of the ESPN main page is “lighthearted, jocular, and intended for a youthful audience.” Surprise!:

A reasonable viewer exposed to the main page would expect to find precisely that type of youthful, non-literal language on the rest of the site. Id. at 1077.

Next, they moved onto the use of hyperbolic and figurative language:

The web pages immediately preceding and following the Knievel photo use slang words such as “hardcore” and “scoping,” and slang phrases such as “throwing down a pose,” “put a few back,” and “hottie of the year,” none of which is intended to be interpreted literally, if indeed they have a literal meaning at all. Id. at 1077.

But even if a viewer had interpreted the word “pimp” literally, he or she would have certainly interpreted the photograph and caption, in the context in which they were published, as an attempt at humor. Id. at 1078.

The court found that the use of hyperbolic and figurative language was so common throughout the site that it was impossible for a reasonable reader to have interpreted “pimp” literally. ESPN was just trying to be funny.

They dismissed the third element of analysis — whether the statement could be true or false — reasoning that the context and tenor of the piece made the issue immaterial. Yeah, you could probably prove that Evel Knievel isn’t actually a pimp (for one, he doesn’t have the wardrobe for it), but it doesn’t really matter because ESPN didn’t mean it literally anyway.

To be fair, just because a statement is intended to be funny doesn’t always protect it from defamation. The response from Knievel’s lawyer, for example, highlights how a word can be understood very differently in some circles:

The writer of this appellate brief graduated from a pool hall he attended every day during his high school years and he most certainly did not lead a sheltered life across the tracks on the north side of his city. “Pimp” was an insult then and always has been in a proper law-abiding society. Id. at 1078.

For those people, sure, pimp would be a serious insult. But the court dismisses this anecdote and instead pushes us to consider the context. The context, the court says, can be dispositive when considering whether a statement is actionable defamation. In other words, language can’t be interpreted in isolation — as Knievel and his lawyers tried to do. So if a word that can be interpreted in a jocular sense appears in a jocular context, then its use isn’t meant to be defamatory. 

“Pimp” is a pretty versatile word today. The well-known show “Pimp My Ride,” hosted by rapper Xzibit on MTV, customized people’s cars in ridiculous ways. The show came out in 2004 and was a hit until its cancellation in 2007. “Pimp” in that sense referred to taking something drab and making it awesome, probably drawing its meaning from the stereotypically flamboyant clothes of an actual pimp. Since that show came out (and before it, too), that meaning of “pimp” has been widely adopted. A simple Google search of “Pimp My Ride parody” turned up nearly 800,000 results. Talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel once ran a parody segment called “Pimp My Bride.” “Pimp” used all over the place.

With the word having such a widely recognized and used jocular meaning, it’s embarrassing that Evel Knievel and his lawyers thought it was a good use of time and resources to chase after ESPN, a notoriously irreverent site, for an instance of “pimp” that was intended to be a compliment.

Still, to be sure, “pimp” can still be a scathing insult — in 2008, MSNBC’s David Shuster got into hot water for saying that Chelsea Clinton was being “pimped out” by Hillary and her campaign. But the context of that statement made it clear that Shuster didn’t mean it in any jocular sense. (It’s unlikely that Shuster could be found guilty of defamation — courts make exceptions for such language in heated situations, such as debate, dismissing the language as understandable hyperbole.)

If anything, court cases like these keep me entertained in this dark days of finals preparation. There’s at least one website where you can buy Knievel v. ESPN memorabilia. It’s great to see a court like the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, normally so staid and proper, struggle to describe slang:

The term “hottie” refers to an attractive or sexually promiscuous person of the opposite sex, usually a woman. Id. at 1077.