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In a June episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the HBO host took on the coal industry and President Trump’s promise to bring back more coal jobs. The segment featured coal mining executive and Trump supporter Bob Murray, but when Oliver’s staff contacted Murray Energy in advance of the episode, they received a cease and desist letter in response.
“A cease and desist letter is, incredibly, something we’ve never received before on this show,” Oliver said, before continuing to highlight Murray Energy’s history of suing news outlets.
The episode resulted in the “immediate litigation” that Murray Energy promised, which is how Northwestern Law alumna Jamie Lynn Crofts (JD ’13), legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of West Virginia, found her words splashed across the pages of The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, and The New York Post.
“Plaintiffs’ Motion for a Temporary Restraining Order is Ridiculous. Courts Can’t Tell Media Companies How to Report, Bob.” “All of John Oliver’s Speech Was Protected by the First Amendment. You Can’t Sue People for Being Mean to You, Bob.” “Anyone Can Legally Say ‘Eat Shit, Bob!’” The section headers alone from Crofts’ amicus brief, which she filed on behalf of the West Virginia ACLU in early August, delighted legal and entertainment reporters alike who called the brief “stone-cold hilarious” and “a harsher take-down than Oliver’s original statement.”
While monitoring West Virginia cases that might be related to the ACLU’s work, Murray’s suit, which was filed in the Northern District of West Virginia, came to Crofts’ attention. When he sought an injunction to stop Oliver from discussing the case and to stop HBO from even re-airing the show, she decided to write an amicus curiae brief in support of the television host.
“A grant of a temporary restraining order is a prior restraint on speech,” Crofts says, “and that’s just not okay.”
In preparing the brief, Crofts decided to use humor to demonstrate how outlandish she believed Murray’s case was. “I read the complaint and the motion for a temporary restraining order and saw just how ridiculous they were, and it came to me that this was an opportunity to use satire to show why satire can be powerful and important political speech.”
“This case is about Plaintiff Robert E. (‘Bob’) Murray not liking a television program and somehow believing that is a legally actionable offense,” Crofts wrote. “It is apt that one of Plaintiffs’ objections to the show is about a human-sized squirrel named Mr. Nutterbutter, because this case is nuts.”
Speaking specifically of the injunction, Crofts wrote, “Plaintiffs argue that Defendants will use their ‘unique powers’ to ‘access . . . millions of West Virginians, to bias the potential jurors who will determine their fate.’ (These special powers must include magic, as West Virginia has under 2 million residents.)”
The circumstances surrounding the motion created “the perfect storm,” Crofts says. “I think every lawyer hopes that they can write something like this, but I felt like this was really the opportunity for it. I mean, the plaintiff complained about Bob Murray being compared to Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers movies. It was a comedic show and even though I tried to have some humor in my brief, I really feel like it’s the plaintiffs that are making a mockery of our legal system by filing the case.”
(In response to the complaint about the Dr. Evil comparison, Crofts said in her brief: “With regard to the Dr. Evil remark, it should be remembered that truth is an absolute defense to a claim of defamation.”)
Crofts, who knew she wanted to go into civil rights law when she came to law school, credits classes taught by Professors Jason DeSanto and Len Rubinowitz with helping prepare her for her current career.
“I sometimes hold press conferences, I speak at legislative hearings and city council hearings, I give ‘know your rights’ presentations all around the state. [DeSanto’s Law, Advocacy and Public Persuasion] was the one class I took in law school that really focused on those practical aspects.”
She also credits Rubinowitz’s Law and Social Change class. “That was the only class I took in law school that really talked about impact litigation and the strategy behind it,” she says. “As much as I would love to help everyone who sends us a complaint, we don’t have the resources for that. And we have to really focus on the cases that we think are going to make the most change for the most people.”
Despite having a job that requires public and media interaction, Crofts was still blown away by the reaction to her brief.
“I knew it was possible that it would get a little bit of coverage, but I was definitely not expecting it to blow up in this way and go viral. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten fan mail before!” says Crofts, who blogs occasionally and is enjoying a growing Twitter following (@jamielynncrofts).
The comparisons to the Last Week Tonight writers’ room have been an especially pleasant surprise. “I’ve included really nerdy law jokes and parentheticals before in briefs,” she says. “I’ve always thought that I’m funny and I’m glad that now other people do too!”
Carter Phillips (JD ‘77) has a long and storied history with Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. Not only is he one of the most engaged alumni of the Law School, he is also one of the school’s ...