(CN) – The West Virginia ACLU filed an amicus brief in support of the comedian John Oliver and his satirical “Last Week Tonight” news show against a defamation lawsuit filed by West Virginia coal baron Robert Murray and his company.
Murray and the Murray Energy Company sued Oliver for “ruthless character assassination” following a “Last Week Tonight” episode about the coal mining industry that specifically targeted Murray.
The complaint alleges that Oliver “incited” his viewers to “do harm to Murray and his companies.”
In its amicus brief, the ACLU asks the federal judge hearing the case to deny Murray his requested temporary restraining order against comedian John Oliver and instead direct the coal magnate to show why his lawsuit should not be summarily dismissed.
Murray claims that during the televised segment, Oliver portrayed him as a “geriatric Dr. Evil” who started his coal companies on the advice of a life-sized squirrel named Mr. Nutterbutter.
Oliver then told viewers about Murray’s litigious past, including his cases against The New York Times and The Huffington Post.
In the cease and desist letter sent to HBO before the airing, Murray’s attorneys said that they would “pursue our damages to the fullest extent of the law, including to the level of the Supreme Court of the United States” if they did not “cease and desist from any effort to defame, harass, or otherwise injure Mr. Murray or Murray Energy.”
In its brief, the ACLU alleges Murray is using the court as “a vehicle to chill speech and silence the marketplace of ideas” which is unconstitutional. “Bob Murray needs to be taught that our judicial system is simply not the place for harassment and petty grievances.”
The ACLU asserts that the legal issues arising from the case are far-reaching, claiming that the lawsuit and Murray’s other frequent attempts to sue over similar issues “threatens the fundamental right of the media to criticize public figures and speak candidly on matters of public concern.”
The ACLU brief goes on to assert that the lawsuit “is offensive to the very ideals of free speech” and that they are shocked that Murray was able to “find attorneys willing to fight a lawsuit that is so obviously unconstitutional.”
“It is irrelevant,” reads the brief, “that Bob Murray finds this protected speech offensive. If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
The ACLU is being represented by its in-house attorney, Jamie Lynn Crofts.
Murray’s attorney, Robert Fitzsimmon of Fitzsimmons Law Firm in Wheeling, W. Va., could not immediately be reached for comment.