The Forum for Humor and the Law (ForHum) was founded in 2022 by Temple Law’s Professor Laura E. Little and University of Groningen’s Dr Alberto Godioli. ForHum serves as a collaborative platform for practicing lawyers, legal and humor scholars, artists, and anyone interested in the multiform relationship between humor, freedom of expression and the law. The blog provides regular updates on related topics, scholarly resources, and a comprehensive database of legal cases regarding humor and satire from all over the world.
ForHum co-founder Professor Laura E. Little serves as the James G. Schmidt Chair in Law. She specializes in federal courts, conflict of laws, and constitutional law. She has travelled internationally lecturing on law and humor and has written several studies on how legal doctrines regulate various forms of comedy.
Temple law students Catherine Baldwin, Jay Kaplan, and Emily Zeidman joined Professor Little on this academic, yet humorous, endeavor. We sat down with them to learn more about ForHum and the unique intersection of humor and law.
Temple Law School: Professor Little, you’ve written extensively about the intersection of humor and the law, from papers like Regulating Funny: Humor and the Law and Just a Joke: Defamatory Humor and Incongruity’s Promise, to your book Guilty Pleasures: Comedy and Law in America. What initially sparked your interest in the subject?
Professor Laura Little: For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with the mystery of what makes things funny. Why do people sometimes not laugh when others are trying to be funny and become hysterical when others are not trying to be funny? I wrote at least one paper on the topic in undergraduate school. I ultimately turned to humor study as a legal scholar and found a trove of raw material. Once I dove into the enterprise, I was delighted to discover an active community of social science, science, and humanities scholars who also study humor.
TLS: Where did the idea for ForHum come from?
PLL: I have a “partner in crime”—Alberto Godioli. Professor Godioli is a humanities scholar at the University of Groningen in The Netherlands, focusing on cultural studies. After receiving a significant grant from the Dutch government, Alberto approached me about joining as a co-founder of this website. We’ve worked together to develop content. We’ve also coordinated with the Columbia University Global Freedom of Expression Initiative, with which we share content.
TLS: How has your work been used?
PLL: In many ways: I recently met a Harvard Law Professor who uses my Guilty Pleasures book as the text for her law school class on law and humor. The New Yorker magazine featured my work in one of its weekly newsletters. Other news outlets have also highlighted the work (most recently yahoo.com and Vox). I also participate in a world-wide organization providing legal support to cartoonists who have encountered oppression and other legal problems.
After life opened up following the worst of the pandemic, I was deluged with requests from court systems and bar associations around the US to speak on humor and the law. Almost invariably, the planners thought this would be beneficial to wellness initiatives–seeking feel-good keynote speeches and the like.
To the extent it doesn’t detract from my other professional work, I’m happy to help with front-line work as much as possible. But my goals are also scholarly—as we say in the humor scholars’ community: don’t make light of us, we are very serious about our work. I frequently participate in international academic symposia.
TLS: Can you tell us a little about what you do for the blog? How does this experience intersect with or impact your law school studies?
Catherine Baldwin: I research and synthesize cases I think are important within the topic area of defamation. I read them, take notes, and then break them down into their essential parts. I was actually taking Constitutional Law with Professor Little, so delving into a topic like defamation was really helpful and allowed me to build on some of my research for Professor Little this past summer.
Jay Kaplan: For ForHum, I collected and summarized cases involving political cartoons and trademark-based parodies. I enjoyed reading the trademark cases in particular, as they dealt with two areas of study that I have a strong interest in—Constitutional Law and Intellectual Property. Apart from the generally interesting and humorous subject matter of most of these cases, I found them to be useful for understanding the relationship between federal power and individual rights—with the tension between the First Amendment and Intellectual Property laws resulting in case law that helps to define the scope of both.
Emily Zeidman: My role for this project is to help compile cases for the blog’s international legal database. Specifically, I’ve researched cases involving the freedom of expression in the workplace in the US, and cases involving humor and the law generally in Australia. I’m interested in practicing employment law when I graduate, and last semester, I was an intern with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission while working on this project. Being able to dive deeply into the legal relationship between humor and sexual harassment, for example, helped to bring a broader perspective to my work as an intern helping to write decisions similarly involving the Civil Rights Act.
TLS: What have been some of the most interesting cases or topics that you have covered (or will cover) on ForHum and why do you find them noteworthy?
CB: I covered a few interesting cases, but the most interesting case was Salomone v. Macmillan Pub. Co. The plaintiff was Mr. Salomone, the Manager of the Plaza Hotel. That name and title might sound familiar to you… because Mr. Salomone is also a character in the beloved children’s book series Eloise. Macmillan had published a parody book that included an adult version of Eloise featured in an illustration that, amongst other things, accused Mr. Salomone of being a child molester. He sued but could not prove any loss of reputation. The book’s authors hadn’t even been aware that Mr. Salomone was a real person when they wrote the parody.
Clearly, this parody caused him some real pain. I find this case interesting because it shows the demarcation between a clear harm with no real recourse and a harm with a legal solution. I also just love Eloise and bringing my childhood books into my law school studies really tickled me.
JK: One particularly interesting case that I came across was Tushnet v. U.S. Immig. & Customs Enforcement, 246 F. Supp. 3d. 442 (D.D.C. 2017). In this case, a law professor filed a FOIA request seeking information about ICE’s seizures of “counterfeit” sports team apparel “denigrat[ing]” sports teams. The professor suspected that ICE was confiscating clothing that was lawful parody. The case itself only dealt with the adequacy of ICE’s response to the FOIA request, but it inspired me to do some further research into First Amendment protections for “parody” sports team clothing. It was nice to learn that the United States Constitution protects “Yankees Suck” t-shirts.
EZ: I would say the most interesting cases I’ve worked on are the Australian cases. Australia (like many other countries) doesn’t have an explicit constitutional guarantee of the freedom of expression like we do in our Bill of Rights. It’s been really interesting to learn how, then, Australian law protects humor through implied guarantees of expression, without an equivalent to our First Amendment. Also, it doesn’t hurt that Australians have a great sense of humor!