Cartoons in Court: Towards a Forensic Analysis of Visual Humor (CAT)

During the period of 2020-2023 IAS CEU will be the coordinating institution for the team of early-career scholars doing research on legal controvercies around cartoons and humor. Over three years, the team led by Alberto Godioli will have six short research stays at IAS as well as at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study, Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study, and Israeli Institute for Advanced Study

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.

Project team:

1. Alberto Godioli (Principal Investigator), Senior Lecturer in European Culture and Literature at the University of Groningen, and program director of the Netherlands Research School for Literary Studies (OSL) 

2. Vicky Breemen, assistant professor at Utrecht University’s Centre for Intellectual Property Law (CIER) 

3. Andrew Bricker, assistant professor of English literature in the Department of Literary Studies at Ghent University

4. Ana Pedrazzini, researcher in Communication and Semiotic studies at ECyC IPEHCS CONICET – Comahue National University in Argentina

5. Tjeerd Royaards, an award-winning Dutch editorial cartoonist currently living in Amsterdam.