Journalism Law and Ethics assignment, week 10
On May 30, 2017, US comedian Kathy Griffin attended a photo shoot that would change her life.
She later described it as an incidental piece of work, something she thought would “sit on a gay blog for 48 hours and then vanish into the ether”.
Photographer Tyler Shields and Griffin decided to use one picture in the shoot to take a satirical swipe at the Trump administration.
Inspired by remarks President Trump had made about Fox anchor Megyn Kelly (“blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever”) they draped a $2 Halloween mask over a styrofoam bust and covered it in ketchup.
Griffin showed the resulting photo of her holding Donald Trump’s “severed head” to her attorneys, who assured her it sat within the protection of the First Amendment, a constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech and freedom of the press adopted by the US in 1791.
She went to bed, knowing it was to be posted on Hollywood gossip blog TMZ and thinking nothing of it.
Within forty-eight hours, Griffin was bombarded with death threats, alienated by her Hollywood friends and gleefully reviled by TMZ, Fox News, Breitbart and prominent figures in the orbit of the Trump White House.
She came under FBI protection from domestic terrorist organisations including the Proud Boys and entities linked to the emergent QAnon.
Griffin also became the first private citizen in the history of the United States to have a sitting President use the power of the Executive to destroy her capacity to work.
President Trump began a firestorm with a series of tweets, while First Lady Melania Traump and his eldest son Donald Trump jr. weighed in after, the latter telling Fox News his family would “decimate her”.
The President also instructed the US Department of Justice, the Secret Service and the Assistant US Attorney’s office to open ongoing investigations into Griffin for conspiracy to assassinate the President of the United States, a charge carrying a life sentence.
Ms Griffin was placed on the US no-fly list for two months and after she was exonerated, the comedian began an international tour and found herself on the Interpol list.
She was stopped at every airport, her passport and mobile phone confiscated, and detained for hours at a time, separated from her family and entourage.
To this day, Griffin says she has no idea what notes are attached to her passport.
During this international tour, titled Kathy Griffin: Laugh Your Head Off, the comedian gave eye-opening and emotional accounts of being interrogated under oath by the Secret Service.
Griffin also spoke of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal fees to avoid a televised “perp walk”.
The Department of Justice called her lawyer Alan Isaacman daily for months insisting his client be arrested, dressed in a prison jumpsuit and handcuffs, and walked into a local prison for questioning.
All investigations were closed, and Griffin was exonerated, but the comedian actively admits the scandal will stalk her career to its end, calling it her “Hanoi Jane” moment.
But her career, far from over, has evolved instead.
Kathy Griffin’s comedy is now equal parts First Amendment advocacy and “fake news” era cultural commentary, with both right and left of the US political aisle at the mercy of her notorious wit.
“That picture, overnight, made me a totally different type of artist,” Griffin told an audience at media and technology conference SXSW in 2019.
Griffin self-produced a documentary, Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story, of her experience of the Trump White House’s attempt to subvert the First Amendment and shut her down.
“Its important people know their rights,” says Griffin in the documentary. “If it can happen to me, it can happen to you.”