Eat S**t, Bob!

I am a huge fan of political humor and I am a big nerd when it comes to research. Research is actually a big part of why I decided to become a paralegal. If I had more time, I would do a lot of research in my free time as I looked up a lot of things that interest me. So it is that I like shows like Jon Oliver’s Last Week Tonight. The show is a weekly show that examines current events and tries to explain and reveal its subject matter so that people can get another perspective from actual journalism and social media. The show is known for singling out a specific topic or event and doing a deep delve into it. Oliver and his crew research the heck out of things and then contact all parties involved in the issue to allow them to comment. But, let us see what we can do with just a little bit of research and examine one of the funniest legal documents I have had the pleasure to read.


The issue at hand in this post is Jon Oliver’s episode segment about the coal industry and in particular, he decided to shine a spotlight on Bob Murray. You can see the entire segment above on YouTube but I will try to make this post make sense without watching. Robert “Bob” Murray is CEO of Murray Energy which is the largest coal mining company in the United States of America. In the show, Oliver took Murray to task mostly for not caring about coal workers and various lies he had (allegedly) been caught in. Bob Murray is notoriously litigious so few people have ever really gunned for him like Oliver and his team did. Oliver acknowledged that he was opening himself up to a potential lawsuit but stood by his words and dared Murray to bring it on. He ended his show by having a man in a squirrel costume say “Eat S**t, Bob!”.


Predictably, Murray filed a complaint for defamation in a West Virginia court. All of this happened in off camera and definitely was not a publicity stunt, at least not on Bob Murray’s part. What I wanted to teach you about today is something called an amicus curiae brief. An amicus curiae brief is literally a commentary on the issue at hand from a “friend of the court”. This “friend” is a party not involved in the suit (as plaintiff or defendant) who wants to offer their interpretation of the law and any recommendations they might have for the judge involved. This commentary attempts to provide arguments or additional information that the courts may not be considering. In this case, the amicus brief came from the West Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. I am admittedly a big fan of the ACLU and I follow their journey to defend freedom in the land of the free.

The ACLU correctly points out that the first defense to defamation is always truth.

The first defense the ACLU points out is that since all of John Oliver’s speech is protected as free speech by the First Amendment, Bob cannot sue him for being mean. The First Amendment of the Constitution places limits on what is and what is not defamation. One of the forms of protected speech is satire which Jon Oliver’s show definitely falls under. Oliver and his team use ridiculous overtures and comedic statements to highlight an issue that is of public interest. As the ACLU points out, the segment begins with Oliver saying that coal is “Basically cocaine for Thomas the Tank Engine”. While Oliver and his team make sure to include plenty of facts, the show is heavy on opinion which is also protected speech under the First Amendment. Opinions are not to be combatted in a court of law but are supposed to be solved through competition and debate. If Bob Murray wants to convince people that Jon Oliver is wrong, he needs to debate it in the court of public opinion and not waste the time of the actual courts of West Virginia.


The ACLU also takes issue with Bob Murray taking further action by trying to slap a restraining order and an injunction against Oliver and HBO. Restraining orders and injunctions are intended to get somebody to prevent somebody from doing something and to stop somebody from doing something respectively. In this case, Bob Murray filed both of these to make sure that Oliver’s show could not talk about Murray or Murray Energy again in order to stop them from tainting a potential jury. In reality, his feelings were hurt by Oliver’s piece and now he wants to make sure that Oliver never tries to hurt him again. When an action like an injunction goes up against a constitutional right, there needs to be intense scrutiny. Basically, while Murray is trying to gag Jon Oliver, he is holding press conferences about the case himself which is unfair. In addition, the First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press and, as long as the speech is not defamatory (hurtful lies), no private citizen can tell the press what to report. Oliver is the first to say that he is not really a journalist but his show is news media adjacent and the rule still applies.


Basically, the ACLU is saying that there is nothing actually actionable in the complaint (lawsuit) against Jon Oliver and Home Box Office. In layman’s terms, Oliver and company never actually did anything illegal and therefore the lawsuit should be dismissed out of hand. The elements of defamation are as follows:

(1) a false statement about the plaintiff is made, (2) that statement was broadcast, (3) the defendant is responsible for the broadcast, and (4) the broadcast caused damage to the plaintiff. When a celebrity or famous figure is the one filing for defamation, there is an additional element in that (5) there was actual malice in the broadcast.

Oliver and HBO definitely broadcast their information (2 and 3) and the broadcast probably damaged Murray’s reputation (4). Actual malice is not what it sounds like. It means that the defendant knew the false statement (1) was false or did not care enough to fact check it. If you go back to my first paragraph, you will remember how much work Oliver’s crew puts into research and none of his stated facts were proven false. Also, opinions and flat out insults cannot be “false” by definition. The complaint falls apart there which is exactly what the judge in the case ruled in the end.


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10 Responses to “Eat S**t, Bob!”

  1. Tarkabarka Says:

    I love John Oliver, and this whole thing was absolutely hilarious. Also, you know there is a problem with a guy when humor pisses him off this much. Many politicians of the worst kind freak out at the first sight of satire. I think it’s an ego thing.

    The Multicolored Diary: Weird Things in Hungarian Folktales


    • Wolf of Words Says:

      It’s definitely an ego thing. It’s not against the law to hurt somebody’s feelings, though. Big politicians and public figures still threaten defamation suits all the time. Must be nice to have such big pockets.


  2. Iain Kelly Says:

    I do like the bits of John Oliver I manage to see over here. Nice breakdown of the legal arguments.


  3. Tasha Duncan-Drake (@beren_writes) Says:

    I only get to see John Oliver through Tumblr – he’s very popular :) Thank you for the interesting breakdown of this issue.
    Tasha’s Thinkings – Movie Monsters


  4. Elsie Says:

    I think you explained it perfectly when you said this, “Also, opinions and flat out insults cannot be “false” by definition.” As much as people would love to sue for getting their feelings hurt by what people say about them, it ain’t gonna happen. Yet people continue to try. You did a great job explaining this. Heck, even I understood it. :)



    • Wolf of Words Says:

      Thank you! Yeah, I studied defamation in school and I have definitely researched it based on social media drama. It’s often threatened but few people actually follow through with it due to court costs.


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