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A. Godioli, PhD

Senior Lecturer (UD1)
A. Godioli, PhD

Cartoons in Court: Towards a Forensic Analysis of Visual Humor

NETIAS Constructive Advanced Thinking Grant, 2020-2023

Host institutions: IAS CEU Budapest (main host), SCAS Uppsala, IIAS Jerusalem, NIAS Amsterdam

Team members: Alberto Godioli (RUG, Principal Investigator), Vicky Breemen (Utrecht University), Andrew Bricker (Ghent University), Ana Pedrazzini (Conicet – Comahue National University), Tjeerd Royaards (Cartoon Movement)

Project Description:

Due to its inherent ambiguity and elusiveness, humor can make it particularly difficult to tell where someone’s ‘right to offend’ starts, and someone else’s ‘right not to be offended’ begins. The challenge is even more evident in the case of cartoons, whose high degree of implicitness and condensation can further contribute to blurring the line between lawful and unlawful humor. Significantly, cartoons have been at the center of several legal debates and court litigations in recent years, from the Muhammad cartoon controversy of 2005-2006 to the ongoing lawsuits against Charlie Hebdo.

These legal controversies are particularly topical in the digital age, where potentially offensive material can easily obtain global exposure, often beyond its original context and intention. The juridical problems raised by controversial cartoons are still largely unsolved, with judges finding themselves without solid legal ground when dealing with conflicting interpretations of the same ambiguous cartoon. Such issues clearly pose a crucial test for the democratic negotiation of freedom of expression. Yet, despite their urgency, the following questions remain unanswered by scholars, policy makers and practitioners: How can judges deal with the ambiguity of offensive cartoons? How can a distinction be made between ‘reasonable’ interpretations and contrived misreadings?

‘Cartoons in Court’ aims to tackle these questions by implementing an unprecedented synergy between humor studies and legal scholarship. In particular, our team will work organically on the following interconnected strands: 1) Investigation of case law regarding controversial cartoons; 2) Corpus-assisted analysis of ambiguity in cartoons; 3) Historical perspective on cartoon controversies; 4) Interviews with cartoonists and legal practitioners. Throughout the project, the research team will work in close collaboration with stakeholders such as Cartoon Movement, Cartoonists Rights Network International and Cartooning for Peace with a view to providing concrete policy advice concerning the relation between humor, offence and freedom of expression.

Last modified:07 February 2020 5.08 p.m.

Contact information

Oude Kijk in 't Jatstraat 26
9712 EK Groningen
The Netherlands

Harmonie Building