Rio Mirada reflects on libel case

Jaiden Crabtree and Ashley Lundberg

Thirty years ago this month, a question in a satirical quiz in the Mirada led to a more serious question: What happens when a distasteful joke about a campus monitor leads to a libel suit?

In February of 1992, the Mirada was accused of libel by a campus monitor after a feature called the “Rio Final”–a version of the long-running humor column called the “Raider Quiz”– was published with a gag that the monitor said ruined his reputation and made it impossible for him to continue his job. 

The quiz featured questions like “Why should condoms be distributed at Rio?” One question asks “What makes Valentine’s Day so romantic?” and some of the answers choices were “Drunk easy women” and “An excessively disgusting and sexually explicit ‘Raider Quiz.’” 

But it was question five that led to the libel suit:

What’s the story behind the new narc?

(a) They felt that we needed someone who’s actually committed murder to hand out discipline at Rio.

(b) They wanted to find someone who blends in well with the students.

(c) He’s a part of Rio’s new motto, “We’re gonna kick some ass!”

(d) I don’t know his story, but he sells primo drugs, cheap too!

A faculty member informed the monitor that the quiz question was about him, leading him to read only the question, according to court records. He resigned from his position and, shortly after, sued in Sacramento Superior Court. (The monitor was not named in the quiz, and the Mirada has decided not to name him in this article.) 

The question was especially harmful, court records state, because the campus monitor “was the only African-American employee at the school, whose student body was overwhelmingly white.” 

Something that was commonly presented to the court was whether or not the average reader (someone who is a reasonable member of the audience to which the material was originally addressed to) would see the Raider Final and the question presented as libel by the plaintiff as a joke or parody. 

In the end it was ruled that “the court finds that the average reader, as a matter of law, upon viewing the article in its entirety, would recognize it as a parody or joke and not as assertions of fact.” 

Even though the case was ultimately thrown out, the 30th-year anniversary of this event is rounding the corner and it’s important to take a moment to reflect and learn from this event.

“Some things aren’t meant to go into publication,” said senior and Mirada Editor Isabella (Isa) Searle. “I think it’s important to be super careful that everything we print is factual and if it’s not, we make it abundantly clear that that’s the case… This case teaches us to be super cautious of what we put out there.”