Why HBO Host John Oliver Can’t Be Muzzled by a Coal Boss

Energy company CEO wants a court to gag Oliver and his fans — but what about that pesky First Amendment?

Ever hear of the “John Oliver Effect”?

That’s when Oliver invites his fans to “attack, harass, and injure the show’s subjects,” according to a coal boss who has been on the receiving end of verbal attacks by Oliver’s viewers.
Murray Energy CEO Robert E. Murray is asking a court to muzzle the host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” in the hopes that Oliver’s fans will stop targeting him with angry messages.

Murray’s lawyers claim Oliver launched a defamatory “character assassination” of Murray in Oliver’s June 18 report, prompting fans to flood Murray’s mail, telephone and social media with messages calling the businessman a “f—ing scumbag,” “rich greedy asshole,” and “responsible for coal miner’s [sic] deaths!”

Murray filed a libel lawsuit against  Oliver and HBO on June 19 in West Virginia over Oliver’s scathing critique of the coal magnate’s safety record and fatal coal mine collapse.

Less than a week after filing the lawsuit, Murray is back in court asking the court to immediately order Oliver to stop making any future verbal “attacks” against Murray, stop talking about Murray’s libel lawsuit, never air the June 18 segment again, and immediately take the segment down from the internet.

But Murray’s June 28 motion to silence Oliver will probably fail, experts told TheWrap.  That’s because the First Amendment prohibits courts from blocking future speech about matters of public concern in most cases.

“I think there is virtually no chance the Court would grant the injunction requested by Bob Murray and his coal companies, and if it does, it will be unsupported by the law,” Ricardo Cestero, a media lawyer at the Los Angeles firm of Greenberg Glusker, told TheWrap. “It’s basically censorship, and the First Amendment prohibits those types of orders,” Cestero said.

Murray’s lawyers disagree, saying that Oliver cannot not “resist an injunction [by] using words such as ‘First Amendment’ and ‘free speech.’”

Murray’s legal team argues in court papers that “these rights do not give anyone the right to say anything, anywhere, to anyone,” especially not defamatory speech.

But David Greene, civil liberties director and senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, was skeptical that Murray could win a gag order silencing Oliver and HBO.

To win, Murray must show that the order “is truly necessary to prevent extremely serious harm, like a serious threat to national security,” Greene told TheWrap.

“The coal plaintiffs in this case will have an extremely difficult time passing this test,” Greene said. “The harm they are seeking to prevent with this order — what they consider to be harassing communications form John Oliver‘s viewers — is not close to the type of harm that would justify a prior restraint.”

Murray also may have a problem stopping the John Oliver Effect.

Because Murray and his coal companies did not sue Oliver’s fans, a “court absolutely does not have the ability to gag Oliver’s viewers who aren’t parties before it,” attorney Greene said.

Even if Murray sues the fans, he probably could not block their onslaught of calls and emails.

“The First Amendment broadly protects the right to criticize, mock, ridicule and speak out about public figures,” attorney Cestero said.

Murray argues that a gag order for Oliver is necessary because his IT team is worried that Oliver’s fans may attempt to hack the company’s “computer networks” monitoring safety conditions in the mines. He also says that his fragile health has been worsened by “the phenomenon that Time and Fortune magazines have dubbed the ‘John Oliver Effect.’”

HBO said in a written statement, “Murray Energy’s request is a dangerous and unprecedented violation of the First Amendment rights of HBO, John Oliver and the show, and we look forward to presenting our case in court.”