In fairness, John Oliver didn’t devote the entirety of his episode on coal last June to skewering Robert Murray, the chief executive of one of America’s largest coal-mining companies.
The “Last Week Tonight” host spent the first half of the 24-minute segment exploring the industry’s decline and poking holes at President Trump’s numerous promises to bring coal jobs back.
Just after the halfway point, though, Oliver went all in on Murray, the founder of Cleveland-based Murray Energy Corp. He started by suggesting that the coal tycoon was “a geriatric Dr. Evil” — complete with side-by-side photo comparison — who appeared to be “on the same side as black lung” by doing away with regulations meant to safeguard his workers.
Oliver also criticized Murray for giving a “bizarre” news conference in the wake of a 2007 collapse at the Crandall Canyon coal mine in Utah. Murray has claimed that the accident, which killed six miners, was caused by an earthquake. A government investigation found that the accident was caused by unauthorized mining practices.
The British comedian ended his segment by inviting “Mr. Nutterbutter,” a man in a giant squirrel suit, to the stage to address Murray directly.
The oversize rodent was a nod to an (unfounded) industry joke that Murray had begun operating his own mines because a squirrel had advised him to. It was also a thumbing of the nose at the coal baron, who had sent Oliver a cease-and-desist letter when the show reached out for comment before the segment.
“Hey, Bob,” the man in the squirrel costume told the camera. “Just wanted to say: If you’re planning on suing, I do not have a billion dollars. But I do have a check for three acorns and 18 cents.”
Mr. Nutterbutter then flipped a giant whiteboard to reveal a fake check made out to “Eat S—, Bob!”
Beneath it, the check’s memo line read: “Kiss my a–!”
“Bob Murray, I didn’t really plan for so much of this piece to be about you, but you kind of forced my hand on that one,” Oliver said. “And I know you’re probably going to sue me over this. But, you know what? I stand by everything I said.”
That was the end of the segment but only the beginning of a legal battle that would unfold off camera. True to form, Murray — who has a reputation for being litigious and “volatile,” at best — hit back with a defamation lawsuit against Oliver, HBO and Time Warner days after the coal episode aired.
A complaint filed in West Virginia circuit court accused Oliver of attempting to assassinate Murray’s character and reputation, as The Washington Post’s Derek Hawkins reported last June:
“Nothing has ever stressed him more than this vicious and untruthful attack,” [the complaint] says, adding that Oliver’s segment was an attempt to advance “biases against the coal industry” and “disdain for the coal-related policies of the Trump Administration.”
When Oliver’s writers contacted Murray Energy for comment before airing the segment, the company’s representatives warned them that they were using outdated information and discredited reports to support the show’s arguments, according to the complaint. Nevertheless, it says, Oliver ignored other materials Murray Energy provided that might have set him straight.
Murray’s lawsuit prompted the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia to file an amicus brief for the ages, with section titles such as “The Ridiculous Case at Hand,” “Anyone Can Legally Say ‘Eat S—, Bob!’ ” and “All of John Oliver’s Speech Was Protected by the First Amendment. You Can’t Sue People for Being Mean to You, Bob.”
“It is apt that one of the Plaintiffs’ objections to the show is about a human-sized squirrell [sic] named Mr. Nutterbutter, because this case is nuts,” ACLU West Virginia legal director Jamie Lynn Crofts wrote in the brief. “As a flamethrower himself, Bob Murray should not be shocked when his own fire occasionally inspires others to fire back. … The place to disagree on important matters of public concern is the court of public opinion, not United States District Court.”
Crofts argued that Murray’s lawsuit was “beyond meritless” since Oliver’s segment was based on publicly available documents and rooted in satire. Last week, a judge agreed (albeit using more legalese and less snark), and dismissed the lawsuit against Oliver, HBO and Time Warner.
Murray Energy spokesman Gary Broadbent blasted the dismissal and said the company planned to appeal the decision.
“This decision contains absolutely no legal reasoning, whatsoever, and instead blindly adopts the Defendants’ deeply flawed arguments,” Broadbent said in an email. “This is a flagrant disregard of the law, the facts, and the substantial damages intentionally inflicted by the Defendants. Clearly, this decision is detrimental to our employees, who rely on Mr. Murray and Murray Energy for their continued livelihoods, and to our lenders, customers, and suppliers who depend on our integrity and performance.”
The ACLU of West Virginia has moved on, though. Seemingly unfazed by the threat of an appeal, the nonprofit legal group started a Twitter campaign to try to get Croft onto Oliver’s show and called the lawsuit “a ridiculous abuse of our justice system from its very inception.”
And on Sunday’s episode of “Last Week Tonight,” Oliver acknowledged the judge’s dismissal during the opening of the show, recapping the saga and restraining himself from fully gloating, inasmuch as Oliver shows restraint.
“You may remember that last year, we did an episode on coal in which we talked about this man, Bob Murray,” Oliver said. “Now we said a lot of things about him, culminating in a seven-foot squirrel telling him to ‘Eat S—.’ And he sued us for defamation. It’s true, that case has actually been going on ever since. But just this week, we learned that the judge has said he’s going to dismiss it.”
The audience cheered as Oliver cautioned that the decision wasn’t final yet — at which point, Mr. Nutterbutter appeared on the screen.
“I’ve been advised not to say much more for now,” Oliver said, “so I won’t, because as I think we know, now is not the time for victory laps — ”
The squirrel shook its head vigorously.
“ … it’s not a time for gloating — … ”
The squirrel’s head shaking continued.
“ … it’s not a time for saying ‘hey, we won,’ and just rubbing it in the face of the person who lost over and over again — … ”
Here, Mr. Nutterbutter held up a large sign that read: “Eat S—, Bob!”
“ … that time will come. Oh, it will come,” Oliver said. “And I promise we’ll discuss this whole case as soon as we are able to.”
With that, the squirrel nodded and disappeared offstage.