Even if Meghan and Harry Wanted to Sue ‘South Park,’ They Probably Shouldn’t

The duke and duchess would have an extremely weak case if they tried to pursue legal charges against the show, a lawyer told IndieWire.
South Park
"South Park"
screenshot/Comedy Central

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry may not be big fans of the latest “South Park” episode, but they’re probably better off avoiding legal action.

“If they were insulted, they can sue for it,” Bryan Sullivan, a media and entertainment lawyer for Los Angeles firm Early Sullivan Wright Gizer & McRae, told IndieWire. They’d have little chance of actually winning, though. “There’s no remedy for being insulted.”

The most recent episode of “South Park,” titled “The Worldwide Privacy Tour” and released on February 15, focuses on the fictional “Prince of Canada” and his wife who, following the death of the country’s queen, relocate to the show’s titular Colorado town to avoid media attention.

The characters were clearly modeled after Markle and Harry; the episode lampoons the former prince’s memoir “Spare,” as well as other projects the royal couple has released since their high-profile 2020 “Megxit” from the United Kingdom. In a February 16 email to press promoting the episode, the outside PR agency contracted by Paramount’s Comedy Central referred to the episode in the subject line as “Harry & Meghan inspired.” The same public relations person sent a similar email two days earlier — minus the “Harry & Meghan” language.

After the episode aired, publications like The Spectator and New York Post published stories saying that Markle was “upset and overwhelmed” by the satire. Royal commentator Neil Sean also suggested to Fox News that the couple was considering legal action.

“Their legal team are casting an eye over the episode to see what is wrong, and what could be turned into something more sinister. This appears to be their course of action rather than laughing it off, enjoying the moment and showing the world that they get the joke,” Sean said.

"South Park" depictions of Tom Cruise, the cast of "Jersey Shore," and Michael Jackson.
Past public figures to get the “South Park” parody treatment include Tom Cruise, Michael Jackson, and the cast of “Jersey Shore.”@ Comedy Central / Courtesy Everett Collection

A representative for the couple called the speculation “nonsense” and the media reports “baseless, boring” in a statement to People. An attorney representing Markle and Harry did not respond to IndieWire’s request for comment.

Whether or not there is truth to the reports that Markle and Harry have met with their legal teams, Sullivan says the two would have an extremely weak legal case. While they can certainly try to sue for defamation or false light — as anyone in America can sue anyone for anything — “South Park’s” reputation for chiding topical issues gives the show a very strong parody defense.

“‘South Park’ is widely regarded as a parody and they parody many, many things. And anything said on ‘South Park’ is not meant to be true or defamatory,” Sullivan said. “It was clearly a parody. And it really wasn’t defamatory in any way. It’s not like [‘South Park’ was] saying [Meghan and Harry] did some sort of action or conduct that didn’t happen.”

Another wrinkle in the situation is that the “South Park” episode, while poking fun at the couple and parroting criticisms they’ve received for claiming to want privacy while ruthlessly promoting themselves, refrains from ever mentioning Meghan Markle and Prince Harry by name; the characters are simply referred to as the Prince of Canada and his wife. According to Sullivan, this only strengthens a potential defense.

“You’re alluding to who the person is, it’s kind of taking it from reality,” Sullivan said. “But you’re not actually saying: ‘This is the person and this is what they did, this is what they said.’ It bolsters the parody argument even more.”

For there to be a legitimate legal argument against parody protection, Sullivan said the piece in question would have to make extreme claims about its subject, such as stating (or strongly suggesting) someone is engaging in illegal acts. The recent episode is on the milder end of “South Park” celebrity parodies; probably the most infamous portrayal of an actor in the show was in Season 9’s “Trapped in the Closet,” which poked fun at rumors over Tom Cruise’s sexuality. There were rumors at the time Cruise would take legal action, and that the actor threatened to back out of promoting Paramount’s “Mission: Impossible III” after the episode aired (Paramount and Comedy Central are both owned by Viacom), but nothing came out of it.

Other brutal parodies of celebrities — a Michael Jackson-like character that was clearly a pedophile, a Mel Gibson appearance that portrayed the actor as a crazed antisemite — never resulted in legal action. To date, “South Park” has been at the center of two lawsuits, neither of which came from big-name stars. In 2010, music video producer Brownmark Films filed a suit against Comedy Central and Viacom for copyright infringement after the show parodied their video “What What (In the Butt),” but the case was dismissed. In 2012, there were reports that creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone were sued by Exavier Wardlaw, who claimed that a character seen in the three-part “Imaginationland” episode was taken from his British children’s series “The Lollipop Forest,” but it’s unclear how the situation resolved.

Given how soft the Meghan and Harry punchlines are compared to portrayals that didn’t cause lawsuits, Sullivan said legal action would likely cost them more than any potential end result. In other words, he’s not taking — or proposing — the case.

“Most lawsuits and the types of firms that they would use would be fairly expensive, and the damages would be really difficult to prove, so on a cost-benefit analysis, it’s probably not worth bringing,” Sullivan said. “[This isn’t] something, as a lawyer, I would advise a client to go to suit over.”

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