A recent spoof story on a Montgomery County satire website — playing on similar spellings in the hometown of a new local baseball team and a sexually oriented website — has not been received in good humor.
A lawyer representing the team has demanded that the piece be removed. But the humor site’s founder, Eric Saul, is doubling down rather than backing down, saying his satire is protected under the First Amendment.
Takoma Torch, a satirical site based in Takoma Park, published a story this month detailing a new website for the Olney baseball team, which is expected to start playing next year in the Cal Ripken Collegiate League.
The satirical story was titled “OlneyFans Website for MoCo’s New Baseball Team Crashes Due to Unusually High Traffic.”
“OlneyFans” is a pun on “OnlyFans,” an online subscription service whose content largely consists of pornography. The Takoma Torch article contains double entendre sexual references with a baseball theme.
On Thursday, Takoma Torch received a cease and desist letter from Stein Sperling, a Rockville law firm representing Olney’s team.
In the letter, attorney Andrew Schwartz demands that Takoma Torch remove the story everywhere it was published or shared and instruct others to do the same.
The letter says the story caused “confusion in the marketplace” among people and sponsors who think the team was involved. “No one from or on behalf of Olney Baseball was contacted, interviewed, or consulted about the Article,” the letter says.
It says the team’s name, image or likeness were used without permission “for purposes of exploitation” and mentions the possibility of the team seeking financial damages.
Jeff Schwaber, a managing partner at Stein Sperling, wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat that Olney’s baseball club wasn’t concerned about the satirical nature of the article.
“Of course we support the First Amendment and the right of the Takoma Torch or anyone else to use satire as a medium,” Schwaber wrote. “Our concern is that our client has worked very hard to create an opportunity to bring a community oriented, children and family friendly baseball team to Olney, and now is faced with the challenges posed by having their new brand deliberately confused with an exploitative site filled with graphic and explicit content.”
Saul said in an interview Monday that he has spoken with attorneys who say his piece is protected under the First Amendment and free speech, as he operates a satirical website.
Chuck Tobin, a lawyer at Ballard Spahr with more than three decades of experience in media law and First Amendment issues, said in an interview that satire like Takoma Torch is “one of the most heavily protected forms of opinion writing under the First Amendment.”
Tobin said there are multiple clues on the Takoma Torch website for a “reasonable reader” to conclude that it is a satirical site. It says “Takoma Park’s ONLY humor source” near the banner at the top. A note at the bottom describes the site as place for those “with a sense of humor.”
“While some people may not appreciate that kind of humor, it does clearly signal that whoever wrote this was trying to have fun with their readers,” Tobin said about the OlneyFans article.
Saul said it was surprising to receive the law firm’s letter because he knows one of the team’s owners, Tony Korson, who is founder and president of Koa Sports, a youth sports organization based in Gaithersburg.
Korson couldn’t immediately be reached Monday evening through a voice-mail message with Koa Sports and a direct message to his Facebook page.
Saul posted the cease-and-desist letter on Twitter on Sunday, along with a response letter that invokes more satire.
“Thank you for your recent submission of a satirical legal threat,” the Takoma Torch letter says. “Even though our writing team found it to be extremely hilarious, unfortunately, it did not technically meet our qualifications of containing fewer than 300 words and have a punchy headline, so we will not accept it at this time.
“Perhaps you could have used ‘Olney Makes History with First Baseball Team to Lack a Sense of Humor,’ or even ‘Lawyer Has Balls to Make Baseless Claims Against Satirical Baseball Story.’”
The letter ends with “cc: Barbara (sic) Streisand,” a reference to the Streisand Effect, in which an attempt to prevent information from circulating has the opposite effect of drawing publicity to it.
Takoma Torch is now selling “OlneyFans” T-shirts for $25. The Takoma Torch Twitter feed says proceeds will go toward “protecting free speech,” with additional proceeds going to the Olney Boys and Girls Club.
Saul said he plays baseball locally and is interested in attending Olney games once they start next year. He believes the article on Takoma Torch — which was inspired by a tip from a reader — helped raise publicity about the team in a comedic way.
“I think most people understand this is a joke. … We’ve written way more controversial articles than this, and I’m shocked this one went to the next step,” Saul said of getting the letter.
In an interview, Schwaber said his client isn’t seeking damages, but is “monitoring” the situation.
“I enjoy good satire myself,” Schwaber said. “The issue is one of … trying to get a community and family and kid-oriented project off the ground in Olney, and now having a situation, whether or not there were intentions for satire, [that] now have people associating or confusing this effort with a website that is something contrary to the spirit and purpose of this organization that is getting started. And our role as lawyers is to protect our clients to the extent that we are able.”
Saul said he won’t remove the article, but wants the Olney baseball team to know he will support it. Schwaber said he is happy to hear that.
“I’m trying to make jokes and I know I’m poking the bear,” Saul said. “But at the end of the day, I’m a baseball guy.”
Steve Bohnel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org