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Hoaxes, Satire, Art: What Crosses The Line Legally

Evening Edition

Glenn Smith, a constitutional law professor at Cal Western School of Law, talks to KPBS.

Aired 8/6/12 on KPBS Midday Edition.


Glenn Smith, Constitutional law professor, Cal Western School of Law

Mark Sauer, KPBS Senior Editor



Fake Press Release

Fake Press Release

Fake Press release

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Last week, news organizations in San Diego received a press release from the U.S. Attorney's office that turned out to be a hoax put on by the medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access.

Then, The North County Times reported the creation of that hoax was inspired by a workshop hosted by the San Diego Museum of Art. The political activist and artist group "The Yes Men" spoke at the workshop to give local groups tips on what they call "telling lies to reveal the truth."

The museum quickly issued a statement denying a direct role in the hoax.

"The San Diego Museum of Art did not pay for or support any component of this hoax, nor any other programs created by workshop participants," the statement said.

But Eugene Davidovich, a spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, told The North County Times his group received $100 from the museum to cover the costs of the projects.

The U.S. Attorney is now investigating the incident. Glenn Smith, a constitutional law professor at Cal Western School of Law, told KPBS impersonating a federal official is a federal crime.

But, he said, the legality of hoaxes depends on the context.

"When you have the element of political speech and outrageousness and the kinds of falsity and drama we traditionally in First Amendment law allow room for, it gets a little more complicated," he said.

"There are no absolutes in freedom of speech and rarely in law," he added.

Smith said you have a right to make false statements and pretend to be someone to make a political point.

"But when it collides against a law, like impersonating a federal officer, or no one has the right to extort money from someone under false pretenses even if it's for a political reason," he said.

He said the San Diego Museum of Art could also theoretically be liable for "aiding and abetting" the hoax, but said that issue is even more complicated.

KPBS asked Americans for Safe Access, the San Diego Museum of Art and Yes Men for interviews, but all groups declined.


The Yes Men Fix The World

Claire Trageser contributed to this report.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | August 6, 2012 at 11:41 a.m. ― 4 years, 7 months ago

In my opinion, some hoaxes actually show which media outlets are doing their jobs and which aren't.

Independent source verification is important, and this means that you don't just trust info. you have gathered from two different second-hand sources, you have to verify the ORIGINAL sources. If you do this, you won't report seriously on a hoax.

I don't have much sympathy for a media outlet that blames hoaxsters for their own journalistic sloppiness.

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Avatar for user 'Chris West'

Chris West | August 6, 2012 at 12:28 p.m. ― 4 years, 7 months ago

This concept is wonderful. Corporations and gov't lie to us every day with impunity. Goliath gets upset about what's put out, Too bad. Let's hear it for the Davids amongst us who pull this off.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | August 6, 2012 at 1:32 p.m. ― 4 years, 7 months ago

And no, the U.S. Attorney's office should **NOT** prosecute.

They will just come across as petty, humorless bureaucrats and, let's face it, they are already not exactly seen as personable, fair-minded folks.

Instead of wasting resources going after the hoaxers, why don't they explain to the people of California why they are disregarding our solid majority vote in favor of medical marijuana.

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