Leno Sued Over Sikh Sketch
A California Sikh, Dr. Randeep Dhillon, has filed a lawsuit against Jay Leno, alleging that the Sikh community was the unfair butt of The Chin’s joke on the January 19th episode of The Tonight Show. The joke at issue portrayed Mitt Romney, the uber-wealthy Republican presidential candidate, as the summer resident of the Golden Temple of Amritsar—the holiest shrine of the Sikh religion.
Seizing on the buzz created by the release of Romney’s tax records for 2010-2011—when he earned $42.5 million in income—Leno mocked the candidate’s wealth by showing Newt Gingrich’s and Ron Paul’s homes, saving “Romney’s” gilded temple for the final zinger. Romney’s net worth, an estimated $190 million to $250 million, makes him one of the all-time wealthiest candidates to ever run for the presidency, not to mention several zeros and commas ahead of the other Republican primary runners.
In the complaint, Dr. Dhillon seeks general and punitive damages for libel. He claims that the joke “clearly exposes plaintiff, other Sikhs and their religion to hatred, contempt, ridicule and obloquy because it falsely portrays the holiest place in the Sikh religion as a vacation resort owned by a non-Sikh.” For Dr. Dhillon to be successful on his claim, he must prove the five elements of libel—publication, identification, defamation, fault, and injury. Noticeably absent in the complaint, however, is any showing of how the clearly satirical dig at Romney has or will cause hatred, contempt, or ridicule towards Sikhs. Dr. Dhillon will be hard-pressed argue that Leno’s portrayal of Romney defamed the Sikhs and caused anyone to actually believe that the Sikh Temple is the Mormon candidate’s summer residence. Also, how many Tonight Show viewers would recognize the photo Leno briefly displayed as the Golden Temple of Amritsar or even connect it with the Sikh religion? Dr. Dhillon is arguing not just a claim of personal libel, but a claim alleging injury to the Sikh religion as a whole. Proving that Leno’s statements actually injured all Sikhs—in other words, that no one within the Sikh religion understood the true target of the joke—will be a nearly impossible hurdle.
Although the joke seems to have not yet hit the wall among the Sikh community, Leno’s satire has provoked international reactions. The Facebook group against Leno’s “libelous” comments now has over 4,000 members, and online petition against Leno’s “defamation of the Sikhs” is now taking names. India’s Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs, Vayalar Ravi, has called the joke “quite unfortunate and quite objectionable” and that India will take up Leno’s statements with U.S. authorities. India is home to both the Golden Temple and two-thirds of the world’s Sikh population. On Thursday, January 26th, two members of the British Parliament even chimed into the condemnation: House of Commons members Virendra Sharma and John McDonnell filed a motion in Parliament calling on Leno to apologize to the Sikh, condemning the Tonight Show sketch, and asking Prime Minister Cameron to “make representations” to the U.S. that “there should be more understanding and respect shown to the Sikh faith.” Their motion has only received [their] two signatures thus far.
Neither NBC nor Leno has commented on the Sikh situation, but the U.S. State Department has. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland defended the comedian, saying, “I hope [Jay Leno] will be appreciative if we make the point that his comments are constitutionally protected in the United States under free speech and, frankly, they appeared to be satirical in nature.” What better amicus for Leno than the U.S. government?
Nuland’s comments, however, get to the heart of an overarching intellectual property issue currently broiling between the United States and India. Facebook and Google are fighting a lawsuit in India over content accessible through their websites that India deems offensive. India’s free speech laws allow the government to block sites that they deem unacceptable, particularly the websites the Indian government feels may provoke racial and ethnic violence, including satirical sites. In the United Stated, however, satire is protected by the 1st Amendment. And Americans love satire—The Tonight Show grabbed the #1 spot in late night television last week, raking in just over one million viewers. However, it seems India does not agree, as Minister Ravi stated, “I wish this kind of thing is not shown by any media in the U.S.”
Leno’s sketch last week, unfortunately, offended many members of the Sikh community. But our laws [thankfully] permit a wide-range of freedom of expression, which means Leno will likely have the last laugh.