NJ Federal Court Says Comedian's Jewish Mother-in-Law Jokes Protected Free Speech
Sunda Croonquist, whose comedy routine for years has been to describe her life as a half-black, half-Swedish woman who looks Puerto Rican and marries into a Jewish family, was sued two years ago after her mother-in-law, sister-in-law and brother-in-law claimed her jokes were subjecting them up to public ridicule.
On her website, Croonquist published video clips of her routines about her in-laws and also made online postings to her blog and on MySpace. In one clip called "Jewish Friends"Croonquist says the voice of her sister-in-law Shelley Edleman sounds like a cat in heat. Croonquist also did an impersonation of Edelman saying to her husband Neil: "Oh my God, Neil, look at her; she's got light eyes and light hair, what kind of black person is she?"
In another clip, titled "Jewish Mother-in-law," Croonquist referred to her husband's mother Ruth Zafrin, as 'Ruthie" and accused her of being racist, the Complaint alleged. She also allegedly admitted to "ill feelings" toward Zafrin, stating: "Have you ever met someone and in the first five seconds you say through your teeth, 'I hate this bitch.
On MySpace, Croonquest said that her mother-in-law Zafrin treated her other grandchildren better "probably because they're white, they're better in her eyes" and "called out" Zafrin for "not addressing her racist family."
In addition, her blog allegedly referred to Edelman as "the dumbest thing with two eyes" and labeled her "racist" because she "calls black people 'colored' and tries to give the impression that she's better than everyone else."
The plaintiffs claimed Croonquist was not joking but was attacking them under the guise of comedy. They also claimed that people knew who Croonquist was talking about because she used their names and identified where they lived. According to the plaintiff in-laws, one person allegedly forwarded Zafrin blog posts about her and Croonquist allegedly reacted on her blog by thanking whoever did it, along with her friends and fans who sent e-mails telling her "how great I am for finally standing up for my family and outing my racist in laws."
In a 21-page ruling dismissing the lawsuit, Judge Cooper said that many of the jokes were clearly statements of opinion and not fact and therefore protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution which governs free speech. The cat-in-heat joke, the judge said, quoting from a previous court decision, was "colorful, figurative rhetoric that reasonable minds would not take to be factual."
The suit was filed in New Jersey because two of the plaintiffs, Croonquist's brother-in-law and sister-in-law, Neil and Shelley Edelman, live there. Croonquist lives in Beverly Hills and her mother-in-law, Ruth Zafrin, lives in the New York City borough of Brooklyn.
Adding another family twist to the case was the fact Croonquist's husband, Mark Zafrin, is a partner in the law firm that successfully represented her. After learning of her court victory, when asked if she would continue making jokes about her in-laws Croonquist was quoted in the media saying,
"In honor of Henny Youngman, why would I stop?" she asked, citing the legendary comedian whose signature line was "Take my wife — please."