Back in the 1990s, Pepsi ran a promotional campaign encouraging consumers to collect points from Pepsi labels to redeem prizes. One of the prizes was a fighter jet.
An ambitious guy came up with the 7 million points and waited for Pepsi to make good on its promise. Pepsi refused, claiming the ad was a joke. The dispute ended up in court, which ruled in favor of Pepsi. Why?
Laura E. Little, a law professor at Temple University, says Pepsi’s offer was too unbelievable to support a legal case. She should know. Little, the Charles Klein Professor of Law and Government at Temple’s Beasley School of Law, is an expert on the legal regulation of humor.
She’ll share her wisdom with the University of Rhode Island Nov. 3 during a talk for the Honor’s Colloquium, which focuses this year on The Power of Humor. The talk will start at 7 p.m. in Edwards Hall, 64 Upper College Road, on URI’s main campus.
A former law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Little has represented the print media in Philadelphia. She currently teaches constitutional law and lectures worldwide on freedom of communication and humor.
There’s a long history of litigation involving humorous speech. So-called “humor scholars’’ have been trying to figure out the essence of humor for centuries. Little’s scholarship explores how human experiences such as laughter, loyalty, gratitude, jealousy and envy integrate with legal institutions.
URI recently chatted with Little about her work, humor and more.
You say that “incongruity’’ is an important part of comedy, as far as the courts are concerned. Please explain.
Courts are frequently asked to evaluate whether comedy gives rise to a legal claim. Questions about comedy emerge in many legal categories —contract, trademark infringement, defamation and employment discrimination are a few examples. In deciding whether a legal claim succeeds, courts analyze whether a communication is just a joke that should escape legal challenge.
Courts tend to find they should not regulate comedy reflecting incongruities. Incongruity in humor can take a variety of forms, but usually arises because the joke includes a surprise or unlikely juxtaposition of concepts.
Parody is used often in humor. Do the courts generally side with the parodists – or the person or thing being ridiculed?
Parody is a favorite type of humor in American law. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has stated that parody serves as an important part of our political discourse and deserves rigorous constitutional protection.
How do courts treat humor that focuses on sex – or distasteful comedy?
Lawmakers are less likely to protect this type of humor. Although some cases state that law should not regulate matters of taste, my research shows that courts tend to impose liability for off-color jokes on matters such as sex, violence, death and incest.
What types of jokes would be considered sexual harassment in employment discrimination cases? When do workplace jokes cross the line?
Jokes do not amount to sexual harassment unless they are so pervasive and so mean-spirited that they actually change the workplace conditions for the victim of the jokes. Before deciding that an employer is liable for employment discrimination, a court will look to whether jokes ridicule the victim on account of her sex.
What about defamation claims? Do courts tend to support comedic expression rooted in First Amendment rights?
Yes, the First Amendment protection of freedom of communication plays a key role in defamation suits for libel or slander. Courts understand that “many a truth is said in jest.” For that reason, a statement that appears on its surface to be a cruel joke may convey an important message of public concern. When that is the case, the First Amendment usually prevails and the lawsuit fails.