Today CRNI has written to the Supreme Court of the State of California as cartoonist Ted Rall, formerly of the LA Times, seeks to overturn an “anti-SLAPP” ruling that prevents him from pursuing legal action against his former employer for defamation and unfair dismissal in 2015.
As we reported at the time, Rall was fired after a poor-quality audio recording of his being ticketed for jaywalking fourteen years prior was apparently taken from LAPD evidence and passed to his editors as a pretext for disciplinary action. Rall went on to contend that the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which welcomed his firing, influenced the paper’s decision. The LAPPL was at that time heavily invested in a private equity fund that was the major shareholder in the LA Times‘ publisher, Tribune Media.
The letter reads:
Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI) is a human rights organization working in defense of editorial, political and other cartoonists whose work leads to direct threats against their life, limb or livelihood. Often this involves cartoonists from oppressive theocracies where blasphemy or mere disrespect is a matter of grave consequence. Far more common, however, are instances where cartoonists suffer abuse inflicted with the instruments of authoritarian regimes: the military or police, party loyalists, unduly censorious statutes or heavy-handed legal action. In recent years the cases we champion have been largely in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Central & South America.
However, it is not unheard of to find a cartoonist in trouble in Australasia, Europe or North America, especially in an era when fewer and fewer professionals cartoonists have the backing of a newspaper or other large media player. Even in the USA, where First Amendment rights are regarded as inviolate, we have seen cartoons being withdrawn from circulation or cartoonists dismissed due to pressure applied from the ground up (organized displays of “offense” on social media) or top down (corporate interests or political cronyism).
Our organization is small, but whenever possible we seek to intervene on behalf of the cartoonist in trouble, which may mean assisting in their legal defense, relocation, or simply making representations to the relevant authorities. This year Index on Censorship recognized our work, nominating us for their Freedom of Expression Award in the “campaigning” category.
[This case] alarms us first and foremost because of how similar certain aspects appear to those of others we have followed in locations such as Turkey, Malaysia or Equatorial Guinea. In each of these places a cartoonist has been the recipient of our annual Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award after being subjected to campaigns of intimidation and harassment from police, generally based on fabricated or exaggerated evidence.
Of course we recognize that Mr Rall’s case differs in the scale and gravity of the alleged criminality at its heart, (neither jaywalking nor the allegedly exaggerated blog post are acts of sedition) but the intent and effect of the ensuing events have produced alarmingly similar results. That a freelance cartoonist could be expected to pay the legal fees of one of the country’s largest and most powerful news outlets seems an injustice so skewed as to be clearly intimidating to other writers and artists. That the incident involves the police could be construed as a further warning against challenging the authorities. Those in positions of power have seized upon an opportunity to silence a critic and serious, perhaps irreparable, damage has been done to the career of a popular and acclaimed cartoonist.
CRNI understands the court’s solemn legal obligations. We also understand that all media accounts, from sporting events to complex legal cases, involve some degree of subjectivity, and that different parties will inevitably interpret the same situation in differing manners. It is especially within those gray areas that we seek to ensure fair treatment. Mr Rall did not misrepresent the basic fact of his arrest for jaywalking. His cartoon and blog were based upon facts and, predictably, infused with opinion. If they were overly acerbic or emphatic in the expression or interpretation of those facts and opinions then, to some degree, that is only what Mr Rall was, or any editorial cartoonist is, employed to do. He is entitled to mount a rigorous legal defense of his reputation.
In our view the role of the political cartoonist today remains unchanged; they are a societal safety-valve, expressing dissatisfaction about political ineptitude, corporate malfeasance, international strife, all the various injustices and irritants of the world in a fashion that is at times blunt, even vulgar, but ultimately harmless. The cartoonist should provide the opportunity for the reader to have a rueful chuckle about the state of affairs as they stand, communicating an idea in a direct fashion that is consumed and processed in a matter of seconds. It is this immediacy that gives the cartoon its sensation of impudence. To read an essay takes time and its line of argument can be picked over. A cartoon arrives in the mind’s eye too fast for analysis and can feel like a blow, particularly if it belittles a cow we happen to hold sacred.
An editorial cartoon is not a bald statement of fact; it is an opinion piece. Nonetheless humor falls flat without veracity. Thus we look to cartoonists not for nuanced analysis of any particular policy but to reveal greater truths. It is for this reason that those in power have cause to fear them. Like virtually no other profession, the cartoonist makes it their business to remind the citizenry that the emperor is wearing no clothes.
We humbly ask the court to take these points into consideration as it deliberates upon the petition for review before it.
The letter is signed by President Joel Pett and Executive Director Robert Russell on behalf of our board of directors and regional representatives.
We note the efforts of other freedom of expression and cartoonists’ organizations in this regard – such as our colleagues at AAEC – and join in their sincere trepidation regarding the precedent that could be set should Rall’s petition fail to convince the Californian Supreme Court.