It’s that time of year again. People shriek and moan and sometimes cower in fear. In coffee houses and on social media sites across the nation, conversations rage about whether happenings are fact or fiction, and whether specific words were actually heard and recorded or merely the figment of a scared and overactive imagination. And no, none of this is in reference to the happenings leading up to October 31st. Instead it describes people’s behavior as the time draws near to elect a new President of the United States.
Satirical political cartoonists love election years because politicians give them so much material with which to work. Political cartoonists take particular joy in exaggerating, both visually and verbally, potentially humorous aspects of a given person or situation. While their goal is usually to make people laugh, their cartoons and sketches can be humiliating, shaming or even offensive. Yet for the most part, political cartoonists are immune from accusations of slander and defamation.
The reason for this is twofold. First, politicians are considered public, thus a large part of their life is dealing with the public. And the public has a right to its opinion. Political speech (i.e. the freedom to disagree loudly and publicly with the beliefs of political figures) is a right vehemently defended by the First Amendment.
Second, while political cartoonists may look to embarrass or shame their subjects, their work is not designed to be malicious or to impede the politicians from doing their job. Therefore, unless a politician can prove actual malice behind the satirist’s comments or cartoons, he or she needs to focus on how the fix the problems being satirized.