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Vol. 4, Iss. 4
April 8, 2015

When April Fools’ Day Goes To Court
The Wall Street Journal And Harrods Go To War Over A Joke


[I know. April Fools’ Day was a week ago. And it’s not exactly the kind of holiday that can be celebrated a few days late – like a birthday. Nonetheless, I didn’t want to completely ignore it. Here is the April Fools’ Day article that appeared in the April 1, 2014 issue of Coverage Opinions.]

Most April Fools’ Day jokes end with a good natured laugh between the fooler and the foolee. But, this being the land where baseball and litigation are competing for title of National Pastime, you have to expect that some April Fools’ jokes do not end right there on the first of the month. When it comes to April Fools’ Day litigation, one type of case stands out as being particularly abundant – parodies appearing in newspapers. Some are student papers and some general circulation. In general, the target of the April Fools’ joke doesn’t find it funny and it’s off to the races for the lawyers. One newspaper case in particular led to an international dispute, with litigation filed on both sides of the Atlantic, involving complex constitutional and jurisdictional issues, and opinions issued by a federal district court and the Second Circuit.

But before getting to that, take a quick look at my favorite April Fools’ Day case involving a student newspaper. In Lange v. Diercks, 808 N.W.2d 754 (Iowa Ct. App. 2011), the court addressed whether articles in an April Fools’ Day edition of a high school student newspaper encouraged students to “potentially commit unlawful acts, violate school regulations, or cause material and substantial disruption to the orderly operation of the school.” It sounds like the parody edition of the newspaper was encouraging students to blow up the school -- and providing them with the materials. Well, not exactly. Consider this capital offense that the students committed. There was a quote from one student who said he would “like to go to a Chippendale’s tryout” after graduation. As the school principal saw it - the publication of the word “Chippendales” encouraged students to come into school and take off their clothes. And there were other jokes in the parody edition of the newspaper that were just as innocuous, yet just as ridiculously viewed by the school district as creating a risk of anarchy. Thankfully the students won and the newspaper’s faculty advisor had the reprimands removed from his file.

But not all April 1st newspaper parodies are this small scale. Consider what happened when the world’s most famous newspaper and the world’s most famous department store got into a tussle over an April Fools’ Day joke. This story comes from Dow Jones & Co., Inc. v. Harrods, Ltd., 237 F. Supp. 2d 394 (S.D.N.Y. 2002).

Harrods, the well-known department store in London, issued a press release on March 31, 2002 headlined “Al Fayed Reveals Plan to ‘Float’ Harrods.” “The release stated that Al Fayed, Harrods’ Chairman and effective owner, would issue on the following day an important announcement ‘about his future plans for the world-famous store,’ including a first-come-first-served share option offer. Journalists seeking further comment were directed to contact ‘Loof Lirpa’ at Harrods. In fact, ‘Loof Lirpa’ is ‘April Fool’ spelled backward. On April 1, 2002, the planned announcement posted on the designated website described Al Fayed’s decision to ‘float’ Harrods by building a ship version of the store to be moored in London on the embankment of the Thames River. The announcement included a limited offer of ‘shares in this exciting new venture.’ Persons who registered on the website by noon that day, ‘the first of April!’, were promised ‘a share certificate.’”

The Wall Street Journal got taken by the joke. It read the March 31 press release as purporting to announce that Harrods planned to ‘float shares,’ i.e., a public offering of stock. Rather than wait to see Harrods’ actual disclosure on the next day, it published an article, in the print editions of the Journal, and on the Journal’s website, reporting that Harrods would disclose plans that day to publicly list the company’s shares.

The story doesn’t end there. It’s just getting warmed up, in fact. “Upon learning that Harrods’ announcement had been an April Fools’ joke, the Journal published a correction so advising its readers in an item that appeared in its April 2, 2002 print editions in the United States as well as on WSJ.com. Three days later, Dow Jones countered with a story it asserts was intended as the Journal’s own brand of wry, light-hearted humor. . . . The Journal’s ‘Deals & Deal Makers: Bids & Offers’ column on April 5, 2002 published an item entitled ‘The Enron of Britain?’ The first sentence of the April 5 Article, which appeared in the Journal’s United States print edition and on WSJ.com, states that: ‘If Harrods, the British luxury retailer, ever goes public, investors would be wise to question its every disclosure.’ It then detailed the April Fool’s joke, which the story reported had been mistaken by ‘some news organizations’ as an announcement of a plan to sell Harrods shares publicly. Dubbing the prank ‘[n]ot exactly Monty Python-level stuff,’ the column questioned whether Harrods could ‘get in trouble for messing with the facts?’ by issuing the bogus press announcement.”

Enter the lawyers. Or, as the court put it so eloquently: “Promptly the face of comedy began to furrow and its smile to curl into what often becomes tragedy’s first sour frowns and snarls: incipient litigation.” Harrods did not see any humor in the Journal’s article, especially the part about linking Harrods, “a law abiding and historic British institution,” as it referred to itself, with Enron. Dow Jones and Harrods next engaged in back and forth letter writing in which they argued over the Journal’s article and whether it was defamatory. Dow Jones maintained that the mention of Enron merely reflected “tongue-in-cheek hyperbole.” Harrods called Dow Jones’s contention that the article was meant to be humorous as “simply an incredible, if not bizarre, assertion.” Harrods demanded a published apology. Dow Jones continued to maintain that the article contained only “non-actionable opinion” and it repeated a willingness to publish a letter to the editor if Harrods submitted one.

On May 24, 2002, Dow Jones commenced a declaratory judgment action against Harrods and Al Fayed in the Southern District of New York. Harrods instituted litigation in the High Court of Justice in London on May 29, 2002. To make a very long story short, the New York federal court addressed whether it had jurisdiction. In an opinion that is 59 Westlaw pages long (that’s monster-size in case you don’t use Westlaw), and as complex as it is long, the court held that it did not have jurisdiction. The Second Circuit, in a mere two Westlaw page opinion, affirmed.

So how did the story turn out? According to a February 17, 2004 article on UK newspaper The Guardian’s website, the case went to trial in England and the jury found for Dow Jones. Harrods was ordered to pay Dow Jones’s legal fees. According to the article, Mr. Fayed said in a statement: “I was not concerned with winning damages in this case; I simply wanted the Wall Street Journal to accept its comparison was unwarranted and to apologise to me and to Harrods. It seems that the Wall Street Journal does not have the simple good manners and grace to do this.”

It came out during the trial that there were only ten subscribers to the U.S. version of the Wall Street Journal in Britain and there had been only twelve hits on the article on the Journal website by September 2002. I’m guessing that Harrods does not carry the paper.

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