Thursday, February 02, 2006

A Million Little Crosses

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? -- Matthew 7:3 and Luke 6:41

Americans like to laugh at those silly liberal Europeans. Given the general paucity of international news reported here, a local court case in Italy has gotten more than its fair share of publicity. An atheist has filed a complaint against the Roman Catholic Church for impersonation and "abuse of popular belief". Luigi Cascioli claims that the Church is misrepresenting Jesus as a real, historic figure, and thus committing fraud. Not surprisingly, most commentators think the lawsuit is ridiculous. It may well be: while there is no valid historical evidence that the celebrated Jeshua of Nazareth ever lived, it hardly seems an appropriate issue for courts to adjudicate.

But wait, there is a similar story here, in America. A book marketed as a true account of personal experience, and presumably meant to be inspirational, turned out to be fictional to a significant degree. This probably happens all the time, but in the case of "A Million Little Pieces" it has developed into a headline scandal because Oprah Winfrey had promoted the book and is now very cross with its author, former drug abuser James Frey.

And guess what: people are suing the publisher! The offense? Contractual misrepresentation - essentially "I wouldn't have spent my money and time on the book if I had known it was fictional." Sure sounds a lot like Signor Cascioli...

Are the lawsuits over "Pieces" ridiculous? Note that the legal expert and commentator only says that they should not be allowed to proceed as class action suits; she seems to think that individual readers have strong cases against the publisher (aside from the fact that an individual lawsuit would be a foolishly expensive means of settling a dispute over a $15 book).

Now, keep in mind that, in the Italian story, Luigi Cascioli is fighting alone, so his case is analogous to a hypothetical American reader suing Random House individually (which is supposedly a winnable case legally, although it makes no economic sense), rather than to the class-action suits which should probably be dismissed. To the extent that the Church is promoting "The Book" to be a true factual account, it would seem to be, legally, in the same position as Frey's publisher.

Hmmm... I wonder if Michael Newdow has bought "Pieces" and would be willing to waste some money on suing Random House. If he wins, and thus sets a precedent for fiction-as-misrepresentation claims, it could turn out to be a big tactical victory.

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