Cowhead Show: Tampa Radio Show Mocks Disabled Child and Faces $18 Million Lawsuit

“Shock jocks” are radio DJs who garner attention and fame by offending their audience. The shock jock is nothing new to radio, but as free online competitors like Spotify and Pandora threaten the medium, the importance of creating a memorable (however offensive) on-air personality is increasing. Radio shows have become such hotbeds of political incorrectness that it is hardly surprising when one goes too far and their attempts at subversive humor come off as merely cruel.

As of Tuesday, this mistake may cost a Florida station up to $18 million.

The Tampa Bay station, 102.5 WHPT-FM, also known as “The Bone,” broadcasts a program called The Cowhead Show, which features a segment titled “Retarded News.” The Cowhead Show’s website accompanied the segment with an image of then-17-year-old Adam Holland, who has Down Syndrome. The image, in which Holland holds up a sketch he drew in an art class at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center in Nashville, was altered by the radio show to read “Retarded News.”

The photo was originally posted to the art center’s website and was used by The Cowhead Show without permission. As such, Holland’s parents, Pamela and Bernard Holland, have filed a lawsuit against Cox Media (the Atlanta-based parent organization of WHPT) accusing the network of wrongful invasion of privacy, misappropriation of likeness, intentional infliction of emotional injury, and defamation, among other charges.

The use of a photograph of a minor without the consent of his or her parents is deplorable in any context. When the purpose of this use is to mock the child, it becomes indefensible. Not only has WHPT failed the Holland family in this regard, but in an email to Pamela Holland, WHPT program director Michael Sharkey made his ignorance abundantly clear:

 “The segment ‘Retarded News’ is designed to highlight odd stories that are seemingly always in the news…these stories are NOT about disabled individuals.”

Unfortunately, the abuse of Holland’s image did not stop with The Cowhead Show. The lawsuit also names Gigahertz, Inc, whose website Sign Generator posted the image, labeled “Retarded Handicap Generator.” The image has also appeared on Flickr.

Why the individuals who run WHPT-FM thought it was appropriate to use the image of a child with Down Syndrome as a punchline is beyond me. Radio shows need to better develop their ideas of what is funny and what is tasteless. In her Salon editorial about the Holland suit, writer Mary Elizabeth Williams argues that although there is “no topic that’s taboo,” and “no individual on the planet who is beyond satire,” The Cowhead Show’s abuse of Holland’s picture is tasteless and lazy.

Williams is absolutely right. While subversive humor can certainly be genuinely funny (she cites The Onion, and I’d add The Daily Show and Colbert Report), The Cowhead Show’s particular conduct is unconscionable is because it targets an innocent, handicapped child for malicious purposes. Although I imagine that Cox Media’s attorneys may argue that the show has the right to freedom of speech, the reason this conduct may be illegal is the usage of a photo of a minor without parental permission, regardless of the tastelessness of the usage itself.