Monday, April 25, 2011

Featured Case: Cherry v. Des Moines Leader

The Cherry sisters, farm girls from Iowa, became famous in the late 1890's with their travelling early vaudeville act.  Their sad fate was to have earned their fame as a result of their suspect talent and the hideous nature of their performance. (Your students will understand a reference to Rebecca Black and her "Friday" video.)  Billy Hamilton, the editor of the Odebolt Iowa Chronicle attended the Cherry Sisters' performance in Odebolt and published a review, quoted in part as follows:

The audience saw three creatures surpassing the witches in Macbeth in general hideousness. Effie is an old jade of 50 summers, Jessie a frisky filly of 40, and Addie, the flower of the family, a capering monstrosity of 35.  Their long skinny arms equipped with talons at the extremities, swung mechanically, and [soon] waved frantically at the suffering audience.  Their mouths opened like caverns, and sounds like the wailing of damned souls issued therefrom.  They pranced around the stage with a motion that suggested a cross between the “danse du ventre” and a fox trot – strange creatures with painted faces and hideous [demeanor].  
Effie is spavined, Addie is knock-kneed and stringhalt and Jessie, the only one who showed her stocking, has legs with calves as classic in their outlines as the curves of a broom handle.... Not even in the woods around Sac City, nor in the wilds of Monona county, could three such raw and rank specimens of womanhood be found.
The review was reprinted in the Des Moines Leader prompting a defamation lawsuit by Addie Cherry against both newspapers.  In upholding the trial court's directed verdict the Iowa Supreme Court preserved the right of fair comment.  Public performance invites comment - even if the performer disagrees with the reviewer's characterization. 
One who goes upon the stage to exhibit himself to the public, or who gives any kind of a performance to which the public is invited, may be freely criticised. He may be held up to ridicule, and entire freedom of expression is guarantied dramatic critics, provided they are not actuated by malice or evil purpose in what they write. . . . Unless this be true, liberty of speech and of the press guarantied by the constitution is nothing more than a name. If there ever was a case justifying ridicule and sarcasm,--aye, even gross exaggeration,--it is the one now before us.
However, given the facts of the case, and the nature of other reviews from around the country, maybe Billy Hamilton could have avoided liability even if he had to rely on truth as a defense.
The Cherry Sisters, Revisited is a modern theatrical production based on the tribulations of the hapless siblings.  
The Cherry sisters:

Billy Hamilton:

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