Is It Defamatory To Call Someone a "Dumb Ass"?

by Lee Gesmer on May 5, 2006

What Were They Thinking? Three California appeals judges thought not. In dismissing a defamation suit by two politicians who were listed as numbers one and two on a list of “Top Ten Dumb Asses,” the Court observed:

The accusation that plaintiffs are top-ranking “Dumb Asses” cannot survive application of the rule that in order to support a defamation claim, the challenged statement must be found to convey “a provably false factual assertion.” . . . A statement that the plaintiff is a “Dumb Ass,” even first among “Dumb Asses,” communicates no factual proposition susceptible of proof or refutation. It is true that “dumb” by itself can convey the relatively concrete meaning “lacking in intelligence.” Even so, depending on context, it may convey a lack less of objectively assayable mental function than of such imponderable and debatable virtues as judgment or wisdom. To call a man “dumb” often means no more than to call him a “fool.” One man’s fool may be another’s savant. Indeed, a corollary of Lincoln’s famous aphorism is that every person is a fool some of the time.

Here defendant did not use “dumb” in isolation, but as part of the idiomatic phrase, “dumb ass.” When applied to a whole human being, the term “ass” is a general expression of contempt essentially devoid of factual content. Adding the word “dumb” merely converts “contemptible person” to “contemptible fool.” Plaintiffs were justifiably insulted by this epithet, but they failed entirely to show how it could be found to convey a provable factual proposition.

Vogel v. Felice, 2005 WL 675837 (Cal. Ct. App., March 24, 2005).

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