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Word for Word: Skank vs. shock jocks

By DAVE SCHEIBER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 29, 2002

An appeals court in California has issued a landmark ruling on linguistic nuance: You can call somebody a "skank" on the air. You can even call somebody a "big skank." And if you get sued for libel as result, there's a good chance you'll win the case.

The state's First Court of Appeals recently found that a San Francisco morning radio show was not liable after applying those terms to an area woman -- along with the choice phrases "chicken butt" and "local loser."

She was a contestant on Fox's ill-fated Who Wants To Marry a Multimillionaire? -- best known for the Rick Rockwell-Darva Conger fiasco.

The plaintiff, Jennifer Seelig, was one of 50 female contestants on the program in February 2000. But when she refused to appear on The Sarah and Vinnie Radio Show to talk about it -- fearing they would make fun of her -- the co-hosts and their producer ridiculed Seelig anyway amid slang-filled banter.

She responded by suing jocks Sarah Clark and Vinnie Crackhorn, producer Uzette Salazar and Viacom Inc., for slander, invasion of privacy and infliction of emotional distress.

But the court ultimately ruled that Seelig and other participants had "voluntarily subjected themselves to inevitable scrutiny and potential ridicule by the media" by appearing on the Fox show.

In addition, the appellate judges were not moved by Seelig's attorney, who pointed out the definition of "skank" in the American Heritage Dictionary: "One who is disgustingly foul or filthy and often considered sexually promiscuous. Used especially of a woman or girl."

They concluded the term has "no generally recognized meaning."

The judges ordered the trial court to dismiss the suit. Here are excerpts of their skank-chicken butt opinion.

-- DAVE SCHEIBER, Times staff writer

* * *

Reality television and talk radio are two of the more popular cultural phenomena of the new century. In the first, real people often compete for a prize under the most unrealistic, often demeaning conditions. In the second, a host discusses topics of current interest with live guests and call-in audience members. These discussions often, though not always, include generous portions of insult and invective. Given these programming themes, it was inevitable that a participant in a reality television competition would be insulted by a talk-radio host and sue for defamation.

. . . There can be no recovery for defamation without a falsehood. . . . Thus, to state a defamation claim that survives a First Amendment challenge, plaintiff must present evidence of a statement of fact that is provably false. . . . Statements do not imply a provably false factual assertion and thus cannot form the basis of a defamation action if they cannot "reasonably (be) interpreted as stating actual facts about an individual." Thus, rhetorical hyperbole, vigorous epithets, lusty and imaginative expressions of . . . contempt, and language used in a loose, figurative sense have all been accorded constitutional protection.

. . . Here, plaintiff complains about several derogatory comments made concerning her on the radio broadcast. Vinnie referred to plaintiff once as a "local loser" and three times as a "chicken butt," while Uzette falsely claimed that plaintiff's ex-husband had said she was a "big skank." A few seconds later, Uzette qualified her remark by noting that her source had been a "jilted ex-husband (and what does he know.)" Thus, the key question before this court is whether these statements, examined in context, can reasonably be understood to state actual facts about plaintiff that are provably false. We conclude that none of the statements constitute actionable statements of fact.

. . . The comments local loser and chicken butt are not actionable because they were unquestionably statements of the speaker's subjective judgment. They fall into the realm of classic rhetorical hyperbole which cannot reasonably (be) interpreted as stating actual facts.

. . . The phrase big skank is not actionable because it is too vague to be capable of being proven true or false. . . . The word skank is a derogatory slang term of recent vintage that has no generally recognized meaning. Like "creepazoid attorney," it is a subjective expression of disapproval, devoid of any factual content.

. . . Furthermore, when considered in the context of defendants' entire radio broadcast, the term skank constitutes rhetorical hyperbole which no listener could reasonably have interpreted to be a statement of actual fact. The irreverence of the Sarah and Vinnie morning radio program, which may strike some as humorous and others as gratuitously disparaging, is not atypical of this genre.

Times researcher Cathy Wos and Times Wires contributed to this report.

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