Columbia Global Freedom of Expression, New York / Online, 14 October 2022
A recording of the event is now available HERE
Organizers: Dr. Alberto Godioli (University of Groningen) and Prof. Laura Little (Temple Law School)
Negotiating the legal boundaries of free speech is a crucial challenge for democracy—especially so in the digital age, as potentially harmful material can easily gain pervasive circulation (Brison and Gelber 2019). Humor is a particularly demanding testing ground in this respect; while the right to humorous expression is vital to democratic societies, jokes can sometimes become a vehicle for unlawful speech, such as defamation or incitement to violence. This problem is further amplified today by the growing fragmentation of ‘irony-laden internet subcultures,’ where the difference between e.g. racist humor and satire of racism often becomes imperceptible (Nagle 2017).
Despite the urgency of these issues, the approach to humor in free speech jurisprudence is still notably inconsistent—not only across different contexts, but also within the same given judicial system. In his analysis of satire-related case law from the United States, for example, legal scholar Jeff Todd lamented the lack of ‘an adequate terminology that is grounded in theory,’ which complicates the task of ‘clarify[ing] and rationaliz[ing] the different outcomes’ reached in court (Todd 2016; see also Little 2019). Other studies have highlighted a similar degree of inconsistency in humor jurisprudence from the European Court of Human Rights (Godioli and Little 2022; Alkiviadou 2022) and Brazil (Capelotti 2015).
In order to tackle these challenges, interdisciplinary collaboration between practicing lawyers, legal scholars and humanities-oriented humor researchers takes on heightened importance. Also crucial are comparative endeavors mapping the juridical handling of humor across different regions. Aiming to set a foundation for further collaboration in both directions, this symposium will feature a series of short presentations on current issues and ongoing projects, followed by an open Q&A at the end of each panel.
This symposium is co-sponsored by Temple Law School, the University of Groningen and the Dutch Research Council (NWO).
- Joel Simon (Columbia Global Freedom of Expression)
10:30-12:10: Panel 1 | Humor and the Law: Global Perspectives
- Laura Little (Temple Law School), The many faces of law and humor
- Dario Milo (Webber Wentzel / GFoE), Humor and free speech in South Africa
- João Paulo Capelotti (Tomasetti Jr. & Xavier Leonardo), Humor (in)competence in Brazilian case law
- Natalie Alkiviadou (Justitia), Humor and the European Court of Human Rights
12:10-13:30: Lunch Break
13:30-15:00: Panel 2 | Ongoing Projects on Humor and Free Speech
- Alberto Godioli, Jennifer Young and Matteo Fiori (University of Groningen), Introducing the ‘Humor in Court’ project (2022-2027)
- Terry Anderson (Cartoonists Rights Network International)
15:00-15:20: Coffee Break
15:20-17:00: Panel 3 | Humor, Hate Speech and Dignitary Harm
- Katy Glenn Bass (Knight First Amendment Institute), Do Machines Get Jokes? The difficulties of evaluating humor and satire in content moderation at scale and across cultures
- Maik Fielitz (Jena Institute for Democracy and Civil Society), Are they all trolls now? Humor, extremism and free speech
- Katharine Gelber (University of Queensland), Humor, satire and racial vilification in Australia
- Rob Balin (Davis Wright Tremaine / Columbia Law School), When Does Law Protect Humor? Joke Copyrights, Humor in Defamation Suits, and Beyond
17:00-17:15: Closing remarks by Mike Gillis (Head Writer, The Onion)
- Alkiviadou, N 2022 Ain’t that funny? A jurisprudential analysis of humour in Europe and the U.S. The European Journal of Humour Research 10(1). 50–61. https://doi.org/10.7592/ejhr.2022.10.1.649
- Brison, S J and Gelber, K (eds) 2019 Free Speech in the Digital Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Capelotti, J P 2015 Defending laughter: An account of Brazilian court cases involving humor, 1997–2014. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research 29(1). 25–47. https://doi.org/10.1515/humor-2015-0128
- Godioli, A and Little, L 2022 Different Systems, Similar Challenges: Humor and Free Speech in the United States and Europe. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research 35(3). 305–327. https://doi.org/10.1515/humor-2021-0121
- Little, L 2019 Guilty Pleasures: Comedy and Law in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Nagle, A 2017 Kill all Normies: Online culture wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the alt-right. Winchester: Zero Books.
- Todd, J 2016 Satire in Defamation Law: Toward a Critical Understanding. Review of Litigation 35(1): 45-69.
Alberto Godioli is Assistant Professor in European Culture and Literature at the University of Groningen (NL) and program director of the Netherlands Research School for Literary Studies (OSL). He is Principal Investigator of the international project ‘Humor in Court’ (funded by the Dutch Research Council, 2022-2027) and recently co-edited a special issue on humor and the law for HUMOR: International Journal of Humor Research (35.3, 2022; with Brigitte Adriaensen, Andrew Bricker and Ted Laros).
Laura Little is the James G. Schmidt Professor of Law at Temple University Law School. She has published extensively on free speech jurisprudence, including the monographs First Amendment (Wolters Kluwer, 2021) and Guilty Pleasures: Comedy and Law in America (Oxford University Press, 2019). She previously represented media outlets in Philadelphia and served as a law clerk for Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, US Supreme Court.