Contextual analysis of Family Guy vis-à-vis the Indian censorship regime

By Prajanya Raj Rathore 35 Minutes Read

Introduction to satire

Satire can be termed as perhaps the boldest tool in the arsenal of performing artists and authors, who use it to criticize political figures, society at large and other famous personalities. It can be said that satire is a genre in itself which borderlines the truth but never has a stagnant perception to it. Satire is a form of art is used to criticize people and their vices, for example in “Vaishnav Ki Fislan[1]”, Harishankar Parsai, the renown Hindi writer, deploys satire to demonstrate capitalism as to how it thrives on the exploitation of the weaker section of the society. The story was an appropriate representation of the nature of the capitalist economy and its vices. In the ‘Family Guy’, an American TV series[1], satire has been used as a tool for comedic relief which borderlines the truth. The show portrays the alternative distorted version of reality where the underlying theme of reality forms the background of the show’s satirical sketch. Satire, as a form of art, finds its root in the Greek literature, the word satire is taken from the word  ‘satyrs’, which represent a genre of comedy which focuses on criticizing people without facing any repercussions, thereby the authors are open to all sorts of criticism.

Thematic concept of Family Guy as a critique to the modern society

Family Guy is one of the longest-running American sitcoms in Television history, first aired in the year 1999. This show has been through a lot of criticism, for taking a hit with the producers of the show facing three lawsuits, though winning all of them. The show aims to paint a very original portrait of society using the tools of satire and pun.

The show revolves around the Griffins family, who live in the fictional town of Quahog in Rhode Island, along with their anthropomorphic dog named Brian[2], who can be perceived as modern-day Touchstone, the jester in the court of Duke Ferdinand in the Shakespearean play ‘As you like it’, who was the voice of Shakespeare in the play. Similar to Shakespeare, Brian is the voice of Seth Mac Farlane, who is the producer of the show. Their anthropomorphic dog Brian acts as a voice of reason in the show when his whole family is acting out and falling into the day to day shenanigans of the society. Brian sticks to his libertarian ideology and endeavours to avoid those shenanigans. He is the sensible voice of the show on issues of global warming, war, drug, sexual orientation etc but being a dog, no-body cares about dog’s [2] opinion. The show uses Brian as a voice of opinion and Peter as the tool of satire to confront some of the serious matters of the society like gender stereotypes, racism, gun control, drug abuse etc. which might be a very sensitive topic for most of the people. The protagonist of the show, Peter, who serves as the driving vehicle for the writers to explain their views on modern-day society, is a man-child who doesn’t understand the consequences of his actions. He has been painted as an embodiment of the society which is highly impressionable and dynamic. Just like society, Peter is impressionable and dynamic, his mood swings and his character changes on a daily basis, Peter serves as a conduit demonstrating that no matter what happens, we will be impressionable to the external influences, and there is no escaping that. Peter has been portrayed in many uncanny situations like shooting his best friend just to show him how the gun is unlocked, which is a satire towards the failing gun control laws of the United States. Often he has been shown littering, being racist to his black friend Cleveland Brown etc. The portrayal of Peter in these types of situations demonstrates the point that society tends to remain in denial about the fact that they are racist, they don’t care about the environment and they dont care about gun protection. Brian, on the other hand, being the voice of reason criticizes the activities of his human friend Peter at every step. They share a  yin and yang type of relationship one being the voice of reason and one being a complete chaotic persona.

The show’s ideology had remained the same throughout the years, that is to criticise people with satirical wisdom, it never fell down to the profanity to criticise anyone.

What is the fine line between satire and libel? comparative analysis of American standards and Indian Standard

This part of the article will analyse the standards set up by the American judiciary to broadcast satire shows like Family Guy, American Dad, South Park etc. and then compare the situation of Indian judiciary in the context of the show Family Guy.

Evolution of American Standards on Satiric comedy

From Aristophanes through Swift and Trudeau, satire has played an important role in expressing political and social criticism.[3] American judiciary has a very liberal standpoint in the context of satiric comedy. The rule protects the opinion of the author even though it is defamatory in nature[4]The judiciary has added a whole new meaning to their laws when it comes to satiric comic sketches. The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America states that a person has a freedom of speech and expression, practise any religion, freedom of press and right to petition the government for grievances and redressal. The first amendment also speaks about the abridged freedom of speech and expression which makes libel a viable threat to satire. There should be a perfect balance between satire and libel otherwise an author can get into a lot of trouble because of that. There has been a set-off period, a transition period and a liberal period in the American judiciary which allows the existence of such a show.

The author should aim for a proper balance between the Satire and libel in order to avoid any type of litigation. Libel law usually sanctions the speech which is defamatory in nature, speech that tends to harm the reputation of a person causing him public contempt, ridicule, aversion or disgrace or induce an evil opinion of that person in the mind of a right-minded people, and to deprive him of their friendly intercourse in the society. The doctrine of libel actually revolves around the populist approach which was actually in support of the Devlin’s ideology of law and morality, he propagated that if a person breaks a law, he should be judged in accordance to the moral fabric of the society, if this is not followed then the society might disintegrate, this posed a huge threat to the satiric writers as their writings were solely based on ridiculing someone and exposing their vices in a joking manner. The rule of law has been changed now it follows Hart’s ideology of Individual morality but still the rules pertaining to satire is in a very ambiguous state.

Judicial predicaments denoting the evolution of American Standards on Satiric comedy

1. New York v. Sullivan[5]This case started the evolution of legislation surrounding Satiric material in the United States, there was an advertisement named “Heed their rising tides” in the New York Times newspaper paid for by the committee protecting Martin Luther King Jr. and protestors from the south side. The advertisement exaggerated the tyranny of the police at that point in time. They denoted lines like King was arrested 7 times, truckloads of police officials came and ringed the Alabama state college campus etc. these statements were false and exaggerated. The court, in this case, ruled that a public official cannot sue for defamation.

The court laid the emphasis on the elements of libel like malice of the author to defame the person. The court laid down three step tests to protect critics of official conduct from libel suits.

1. a false statement of fact

2. having defamatory content

3. actual malice.

Satire works through a wide distortion of particular facts, while at the same time it pretends to depict the truth in order to level criticism, it fails to gain protection under the aforementioned three prongs established by the court. Firstly, Satiric works revolve around the falsity of facts or a distorted reality to deliver a message. Moreover, by the definition of satire often, on its face, has the appearance of fact. Secondly, satirical material is critical of its subject’s character or actions, and hence, it is defamatory. Finally, the satirist always writes with an actual malice to criticise their subjects, they want to exaggerate their vices in a humorous manner. While satire fails the test established in this case other literary works can find protection under this same test.[6]

If we try to put comedic satire of the series Family guy in the aforementioned docket of tests, it fails immediately, family guy writers tends to paint a very humorous yet very thought provoking things about people or the subject matter which they are addressing, for example : in an episode called road to multiverse, the writers portrayed a very wise image of the world without religion, they said that if there was no religion, there would’ve been no age of scientific regression so the humanity in one of the multiverse was 1000 years ahead. Another episode depicted the assassination of John F. Kennedy in a comic manner, his head was replaced with a cheese burger and then he was shown getting shot in the head. The test fails to fit in the episode within its ambit as writers are actually presenting a false statement of facts, defaming Kennedy posthumously and depiction of their idea of religion. The writers of the show tend to provide an insight on some of the most intricate incidents by depicting them as a sheer joke but still sticking to the truth.

Criticism of the judgment: The Devlin’s ideology highlights the rationale of the court  which went with the populist belief that what is right according to society’s standards. The court at this stage was in a moral dilemma whether to address the individual standards of morality or to go along with the populist approach to

2. Gertz v. Robert Welch[7] This case marked a transitional period for the American judiciary in terms of the suggestions and opinions against the famous personality. There was an article written against police which falsely alleged them of having a communist conspiracy and emphasized on changing the police regime in the dictatorship form which they planned to impose in the country.

The Supreme Court actually reasoned in this case that opinions are to be protected from defamation suits under the first amendment. Under the first amendment there is no such thing as a false idea, no matter how pernicious an opinion may seem, we depend for its correction not on the conscience of judges or juries but on the competition of other ideas.

The court emphasized on the fact that if a person is famous, he has opened himself to a whole level of the criticism, even though the opinion is defamatory they ought to be protected.

However, this judgment opened up a pandora’s box, since the directions laid by the court clearly state that defamatory suits shall be subject to state laws. The jurisdiction will decide the fate of a writer.

This was a transition period for the American judiciary. In another case of Ollman v. Evans[8] came out with its own standard to test the viability of satiric materials named totality of circumstances test for distinguishing between fact and opinion. The court actually examined three elements: the verifiability of the statement, the common usage and the context. But when we look Family Guy in the light of this judgment, few of the family guy episodes are based on realistic satire which tends to present itself in a raw manner like episodes depicting Bill Clinton as a very perverse character which somewhere borderlined the truth, it was portrayed as a parodic character on the show but it won’t be protected under this test because it makes fun of the truth that Bill Clinton had an affair with Monica Lewinsky during his presidential reign. This judgment had protected many of the satirical writings and drawing.

3. Hustlers v. Falwell[9]this was one of the most revolutionary judgment given by the American judiciary which was in support of realistic satire, Hustler magazine printed a parody interview in their magazine, where he talked about having an incestuous sexual encounter in his out house with his mother. The lower court followed the New York guidelines and ruled in favour of Falwell but it was clearly visible that it was a satire, the Supreme Court overturned the judgment given out by the lower court and ruled in favour of the Hustlers magazine. The interview never intended to depict reality but it was intended to ridicule reverend and expose his dual nature to the public.

It should be noted that Fiction operates on the similar lines as the satiric comedy, the main element in both fiction and satire are the falsity of facts or invention of the imagination. Satire can be said as the sub set of fiction, as one of a kind of fabrication. Fiction and satire face a liability under libel law but a fiction writer always escapes the liability because they don’t intend to defame personalities or people in general on the other hand a satiric writer tends poke fun at people by pointing out their vices in a comedic manner which might be distasteful to the people in general. Again, the Hart and Devlin opinion comes into play whether to support individualistic moral beliefs or to support societal norms at large? This judgment tends to shift towards Hart’s ideology on individualistic morals, which was defined in this case.

Court’s rejection of the use of a humour meter was a welcomed step in Hustler’s case. The court determined that there can be no said standard for humour, as it is quite subjective. What Hustlers readers find humorous is quite different from what the general public finds humorous. The judgment paved a way for protection of satiric writers and artists.

Similarly, in the case of Frank v. National Broadcasting Co[10]. the fact that the humour of a Saturday Night Live skit was so nonsensical and silly that libelous statements made on the show was protected not as an opinion but as non-defamatory.

The Family Guy team used the Hustler’s precedent in one of its own cases. The case pertained to Carol Brunett, who is a proclaimed American comedian.She filed a suit against the show for using her persona as charwoman on the show where her character was shown mopping the floors of an adult toy shop. She claimed remedy for trademark infringement and secondly she also claimed damages for the defamatory nature of her portrayal as a character on the show. The court ruled in favour of the production house as parody was protected under the first amendment of the constitution of the United States of America.

The judgement doesn’t follow a mass mentality, it focuses on the consumer of a particular medium of satiric comedy, this brought about the big change in the American standard on what is the fine line between libel and satire.

The court protected the parody based on the New York times judgement and on finding that the parody was not defamatory in nature the judgement was delivered in the favour of the plaintiff.

Evolution of Indian Standards on Satiric comedy

India has been a literary gold mine for satiric comedy since the dawn of modern literature, with earlier works documented on record from 17th century Mughal Courts , Birbal can be said as one the most satirical artists in the courts of Akbar, he use to criticize the decision of his emperor from time to time[11]. Even the Constitution of India under Article 19(1)(a) gives freedom of speech and expression to all the citizens but the sad part is that not a single precedent supports the satirical literature. The judicial predicament on satire has been a big roadblock for the people even trying to have a humorous take on political situations or anything they can be prosecuted for.

Seemingly the judiciary along with the law makers and Indian society share a very hostile outlook to the satire form of literature. Golden age for the exercise of freedom of speech and expression can be said to be after independence, when it was widely cherished and hailed by the public sphere. The right to freedom of speech and expression is limited by Article 19(2) of the Constitution, as it bars anyone from making a point which might be defamatory in nature and Satire is a form of criticism which specifically aims at a particular person to point out the flaws in them.

India is among the biggest consumers of memes but when it comes to the satirical humour, we howl at the idea of even being criticized. We love to flaunt satirical writers like Premchand, Hari Shankar parsai and Gyan Chaturvedi in front of the world but because of the social, legal and judicial hostility towards forms of speech and arts, we could not inculcate, encourage let alone replicate the prowess of such arts in our youth in the future.

Judicial predicaments denoting the evolution satiric comedy in India

1. K.A. Abbas v. Union of India[12]This can be said as one of the most liberal decisions by the Supreme Court, the petitioner sought an U certificate from the Central Board of Film Certification for a film called the ‘Tale of Four Cities’. The board refused to grant him the certificate.

The court had a very liberal standpoint in this case, they said that “our standards must be so framed that we are not reduced to a level where the protection of least capable and the most depraved amongst us determines what the morally healthy cannot view and read. Therefore, it is not the elements of rape, leprosy, sexual immorality which should not attract the censor’s scissors but how the theme is handled by the producer. The Hicklin test[13] used in the Rajeet D. Udhesi[14] was liberalized in this case as courts focused on individual moral standards and gave a creative freedom to the producer of the film to present such a serious topic in a sensible manner.

It was observed in this case that it is not the depraved mind that will determine the standard of obscenity; rather it would be the average reader who will ascertain it. The court also laid emphasis on the intention of the producer of the work by stating that importance should be given on “How the theme is handled by the producer?”

The judgement was clearly in line with Hart’s ideology of individualistic moral so it focused on the audience of that particular kind of movie rather than the societal standards of what is morally correct. This was one of the most liberal judgments when it comes to media related works. The true meaning of creative freedom was realized in this judgment. Even a show like Family Guy which now seems impossible to broadcast on Indian networks would’ve been possible as it involved the creative freedom to present certain matters to the public in a very nonsensical manner. The judgement struck a perfect balance between creative freedom and censorship.

Criticism of the judgment- The only point of criticism this judgment have is that it doesn’t say anything about the satiric comedy or performances but it can be said that it is implicitly mentioned in the judgment because it gives a creative freedom to the producer to present certain matter to the public in his own flavour. So satirical comedy can be said as the implicit part of the judgment but the situation is very unclear as the defamation is bar on the freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(2) of the constitution of India

2. DG Directorate General v. Anand Patwardhan[15]this case marked the beginning of backward evolution of the censorship regime in India. This case arose when censor board actually gave an adult certificate to an award-winning film and the national television channel Doordarshan issued a circular to telecast a film with adult certificate. The Bombay High Court gave the direction to telecast the film on national television. The Supreme Court had two questions to answer first was the constitutionality of obscene speech and the other was the exact definition of obscene speech. The court used the Miller’s test[16] to identify the extent of obscene speech in this case which actually works on the societal interest.

This judgement served as a severe blow on the backs of satiric artists and writers, as their creative freedom was snatched from the hands of the creators again. The court deviated from a liberal stand to a conservative by giving the societal norms an overpowering effect on the over individual creativity. This judgement followed Devlin’s ideology on societal norms of moral beliefs which served as a promoting factor for this judgement.

The court followed a Miller’s test which was modified according to the Indian standards. The court took ‘as a whole’ part and incorporated ‘contemporary community standards’ required for the ‘societal norms of decency’ test. According to the court this standard actually had constitutional backing of Article 19(2). Court ruled in favour of the plaintiff.

But when we relate it to Family Guy series, there are certain episodes which had shown protagonist of the show doing questionable things like making joke on 9/11 or abusing drugs or being subjected to gene therapy, this was shown in good conscience aiming to criticize all the bad habits of a society, so it we try to fit any of it under this test, it will fail because the things which an American society finds humorous might not be found humorous by the Indian audience but there has been a polar shift in the norm of the society, which should be understood by the court. Depicting aforesaid vices might not yield the same effect on the audience as before.

This case actually snatched away the creative freedom from the hands of the writers and artists, so if we imagine a show like Family Guy being aired on the Indian television, it will not be possible.

3. Devidas Tuljapalkar v. State of Maharashtra[17]This case actually gives an account of the devolving stand on satirical literature of Indian literature. The author wrote a satirical piece of poem about his encounters with Mahatma Gandhi, the underlying aim of the poem was to criticise people who claim to follow Gandhian ideology. But the poem was taken in bad taste and he was prosecuted for it.

The court followed the Roth’s test which is something way older than the Hicklin’s test and came to the conclusion that no satire can be directed towards the national personalities. This judgment simply put an end to the satirical literature who aim to provide a fair criticism using the name of some national personality.

It doesn’t create paradox like gertz[18] but it does have some similarity to it, since Roth’s test[19] believe in the propagation of puritan beliefs. If we examine the series Family guy in the light of this test, in an episode Jesus Christ was shown returning to the current age and taking part in the society’s shenanigans. Jesus was actually portrayed as a normal guy working in a music record shop but he fell into the shenanigans with his new found pal Peter. In the episode he was also portrayed doing some objectionable things. This episode would disqualify the Roth’s test as it does not not spread puritan belief pertaining to Jesus Christ, rather does the contrary.

In this case, the court however did not lay down the criteria for determining who is a national personality? This happens to be a potentially big loophole in this judgement, a politician can also claim himself as a national personality and use it for his own purpose.

Roth’s test actually believes in the propagation of puritan interest in the society which focuses more on building a society upon the puritan interest. The test fails to realise that the standard of morality is different for different people.

Criticism of the judgement- The judgement fails to determine who are national personalities, Roth test had been used which we can say that is not applicable in the modern-day society since the moral standards have completely shifted. This judgement should be revisited again.

CONCLUSION

The question which puzzles everyone is that can a series like Family Guy be broadcasted on Indian Television? The probable answer is in the negative, much because the current standard set by the Indian Courts cannot tolerate the ideological background of the show. If we look at the Devidas judgement closely the court has applied the Miller’s test but the poem fails to fit into the position of it catering to the sexual interest but rather happened to be a significant work of literature. The court refused to acknowledge that the poem was a satire on the people who falsely claimed to follow Gandhi’s principles but operated contrary to them. So the speculation, whether we could expect a series like Family Guy on Indian television or digital platform in the near future, happens to be pretty dim. The American judiciary has acknowledged satire as a form of fiction but Indian judiciary is yet to find terms to award it legal acceptance.

The community standard test happens to be a subjective parameter and the legitimacy of such decisions are questionable. There is a need to adopt certain objective elements for the test so as to set a benchmark standard. The objective element could also take inspiration from the Miller’s test which states that the work should describe sexual conduct in a patently offensive way and should lack in serious artistic or literary value in order to be classified as obscene.


[1] Source Link
[2] Source Link
[3] Hustlers v flanell 485 U.S. 46 (1988)
[4] Gretz v Robert welch 418 U.S. 323 (1974)
[5] . New York v. Sullivan, 376, US 254, 270
[6] Leslie Kim, protecting satire against the Libel Claims: A new reading of the first amendment, Yale Law Journal
[7] Supra 4
[8] Ollman v. Evans, 750 f.2d 970, 974-75
[9] Supra 3
[10] Frank v. National Broadcasting Co, 506 NYS 2d. 869
[11] Indian Satire in the period of its first modernity, Monika Horstmann and Heidi Rika Maria Pauwels
[12] K.A. Abbas v. Union of India, 1971 AIR 481
[13] Regina v. Hicklin, L.R. 2 Q.B. 360 (1868)
[14] Ranjeet D. Udhesi v. State of Maharastra, 1965 AIR 881
[15] DG Directorate General v. Anand Patwardhan, Appeal (civil) 613 of 2005
[16] Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15
[17] Devidas Tuljapalkar v. State of Maharashtra , CRIMINAL APPEAL NO.1179 OF 2010
[18] Supra 7
[19] Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476


Prajanya Raj Rathore

Just an average guy, who is here to learn and explore new things. With interest in Technology law, Media law, telecommunications law, Criminal law and Environmental law.

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