A picture can paint a thousand libellous words

5 December 2023 | Applicable law: US | 2 minute read

This article was originally published in The Times on November 30, 2023.

A defence of satire may create some leeway, but cartoons and other images can still be defamatory and lead to action.

Palaeolithic stick men told tales of derring-do tens of thousands of years ago — and cartoons are still entertaining us today. But while the downside of a dodgy drawing on the wall of a cave might have been a lost hunting opportunity, the catch for a caustic modern cartoon could be a lost job — as Steve Bell, the long-standing cartoonist at The Guardian, can attest — or a legal action.

The colourful caresses of a cartoon can carry as much weight to worry a reputation or to jeopardise employment as the black and white strokes of the author’s pen or keyboard.

In the 1930s the chocolate manufacturer Fry left a bad taste in the mouth of the prominent English amateur golfer, Cyril Tolley, for caricaturing him in an advertisement for the company’s sweet treat, a tasty tablet protruding from his pocket. While the intention was to compare the excellence of the chocolate to the excellence of the golfer’s swing, he successfully argued the cartoon implied payment for the endorsement, entirely inconsistent with his well-known amateur status and thus damaging to his reputation.

A 3D picture in 1894 painted a thousand problematic words that led to a damage award of one farthing. The waxworks museum Madame Tussauds came under fire over its installation at the entrance to its chamber of horrors of a dummy of gun-toting Alfred John Monson. The son of a Scottish reverend, Monson argued that the message conveyed by the image — not by words but by innuendo of presence and proximity — was that he was a convicted murderer, whereas in fact, while he had been tried, the Scottish jury had returned the verdict of “not proven”.

Another type of dummy, a baby’s pacifier, featured alongside a stomped-on tennis racket in an Australian cartoon of Serena Williams mid-tantrum during her 2018 US Open loss. Despite public outrage at its alleged sexism and racism, The Herald Sun stood by its cartoonist, and the Australian Press Council found that the drawing was of acceptable “exaggeration and absurdity”.

Racist concerns were raised only recently about the waxwork dummy of the actor, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the Grevin Museum in Paris. Although he is of Samoan and Black Nova Scotian heritage, the skin tone of his waxwork alter ego paled by comparison, and the museum is reworking the figure to remedy the offence.

A greater latitude may be afforded to satire or hyperbole. But if a picture paints a thousand words and those words are false and defamatory, offensive or racist, homophobic or antisemitic, then the artist can be sued or sacked and the offended party can seek redress. The lesson is to choose your words carefully — whether you use words or not.

This document (and any information accessed through links in this document) is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Professional legal advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from any action as a result of the contents of this document.


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