A federal judge has dismissed a Georgia Realtor’s defamation lawsuit against the producer of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” because, well, the TV comedian was telling a joke.
Warner Robins real estate agent Titi Pierce sued Warner Bros Entertainment — but not DeGeneres — over a nationally televised bit last year in which DeGeneres showed a photo of one of Pierce’s roadside signs.
This would be marketing gold for some real estate agents, but it was part of an occasional segment about funny signs.
With the sign in view, DeGeneres pronounced Pierce’s first name like the slang word for a female breast.
Thirteen-year-olds everywhere laughed along with the studio audience.
This was a grievous misdeed, according to Pierce’s suit, because “grammar dictates” that Titi be pronounced “TEE TEE.”
“In all of her 35 years of life, no one has ever referred to Ms. Pierce as ‘titty’ until” DeGeneres did, the suit claimed.
The Realtor said as a result of the joke she faced public ridicule in her home town and crank calls on her cell phone number, which had not been blurred out when the photo of the sign aired on TV.
She asked for compensation in part for the “intentional infliction of emotional distress.”
I’m not making this up. It’s a real case.
And it landed with federal district court judge Leslie Abrams, a former prosecutor and Yale-educated daughter of two Methodist ministers. Would it be inappropriate for a judge to giggle and shake their head in dismay in the privacy of chambers?
Abrams concluded in a ruling this week that DeGeneres’s pronunciation could not be proven to be false.
“The letter ‘i’ in the English language can be pronounced in several ways. While Plaintiff chooses to pronounce her name with ‘ē,’ there is nothing ‘demonstrably false’ in pronouncing it with ‘ĭ’ as DeGeneres did. Nor would it have been defamatory to have pronounced Plaintiff’s name ‘tī-tī’ or ‘tĭ- tĭ,’ or any other possible permutation.”
(Struggling to remember those pronunciation marks? Me, too. I asked a second-grade teacher. The straight line over the “i” represents the sound “i” makes in the word “ice.” The curved line opening upward over the letter “i” represents the sound the letter makes in the word “in.”)
The judge also found that it was clear DeGeneres’ pronunciation was part of a joke and that her statements should not be taken literally.
“DeGeneres, a comedian, deliberately mispronounced two other signs in the same two-minute segment for comedic effect. She pronounced “Now! Dental” as “Ow! Dental” and “$ Exchange” as “Sex change.”
The judge wrote that DeGeneres’ words were protected under the First Amendment doctrine of rhetorical hyperbole. “Moreover, because DeGeneres’s statement was so unambiguously humorous as to bear only one reasonable interpretation, dismissal of Plaintiff’s defamation claim is appropriate.”
Warner Bros declined to comment on the ruling.
Pierce’s attorney, Stacy Godfrey Evans, who is a Georgia legislator, emailed me that “We are disappointed in the ruling and will consider an appeal.”
So, brace yourself: there may be more to learn on the pronunciation front.
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