Last week, the Takoma Torch was threatened with legal action after posting a story headlined “ ‘OlneyFans’ Website for MoCo’s New Baseball Team Crashes Due to Unusually High Traffic.” The conceit of the double-entendre-filled parody is that Web surfers are confusing OnlyFans with OlneyFans.
As the satirical story puts it, quoting a fictitious person: “Who could have known that ‘We’re Going All the Way’ actually meant something else?”
There actually is a new baseball team in Olney — part of the Cal Ripken Collegiate League — and the team’s owners are not amused. On Sept. 9, a day after the 324-word parody went online, attorney Andrew L. Schwartz of Rockville firm Stein Sperling sent a cease-and-desist letter to the Takoma Torch: “Olney Baseball has learned that The Takoma Torch has circulated communications that use the name, image, or likeness of Olney Baseball in a false, misleading and/or defamatory manner.”
The letter outlines further actions should the Takoma Torch not comply.
“They want me to take down the whole article and scrub it from social media,” said Eric Saul, creator of the Takoma Torch. “Basically: Comply or else they’ll threaten to sue me, with potential damages. I don’t know what damages a small-time baseball team has before it’s even started its season.”
Saul is a 42-year-old architect who created the satirical site in 2019 to tweak the pretensions of the famously liberal community in which he then lived. (He has since moved just across the border out of the incorporated town of Takoma Park.)
Recent Takoma Torch headlines include: “ ‘Look at All These Suckers Taking Ivermectin!’ Says Takoma Park Woman Drinking Kombucha,” “Study: Nobody Who Moved Here After You Loves This Place As Much As You” and “ ‘People That Stand to the Left of Escalators Are Stupid’ Says DC Area Man Driving Slowly in Left Lane of Beltway.”
A handful of contributors write for the Takoma Torch, and Saul accepts headline ideas from dozens more. When someone suggested riffing on OnlyFans/OlneyFans, he first considered writing about the Olney Theatre Center.
“Then I remembered this new baseball team was forming,” he said. “Baseball is bigger than the Olney Theatre. I love baseball.”
In fact, Saul — who has played on and coached rec league teams — knows some of the people behind Olney Community Baseball, which, just to be clear, has no connection to OnlyFans.com. Said Saul, “It’s not my job to tell people who don’t get jokes that it’s a joke.”
He would appear to have the Constitution on his side.
“The Supreme Court made it clear in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell in 1988 that satire and parody are protected by the First Amendment,” said Clay Calvert, a legal scholar at the University of Florida. “I don’t think anybody is going to take this as a serious assertion of fact. It’s humor.”
Olney Baseball and its lawyers aren’t laughing.
“Of course we support the First Amendment and the right of the Takoma Torch or anyone else to use satire as a medium,” wrote Stein Sperling’s Jeffrey M. Schwaber in an email. “Our concern is that our client has worked very hard to create an opportunity to bring a community oriented, children and family friendly baseball team to Olney, and now is faced with the challenges posed by having their new brand deliberately confused with an exploitative site filled with graphic and explicit content.”
Of course, that brand confusion has only spread since that cease-and-desist letter, which Saul quickly posted on Twitter. It’s likely more people know about OnlyFans/OlneyFans now than if the Olney Baseball people had just gritted their teeth and kept silent.
“We saw a massive spike in traffic,” Saul said. “I use WordPress and I got a little notice that said, ‘Your stats are booming!’ ”
On a good day, the Takoma Torch gets about 200 visitors, Saul said. Since this blew up on Twitter, it’s had 2,800 a day.
“We kind of doubled down,” said Saul. “We’re making OlneyFans T-shirts.”
Saul said he’ll donate proceeds from T-shirt sales to the Olney Boys and Girls Club — unless he really is sued, in which case the money will go to a legal-defense fund.
“I was actually hoping to go to Opening Day next year,” said Saul of the as-yet-unamed Olney baseball team. “I’m very interested in their success. Obviously I didn’t like being threatened by a lawsuit. I still love baseball and the baseball community. . . . Hopefully this silly thing will bring attention to local baseball.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.