Jury Trial Underway in Honolulu

Legendary North Shore surfer and alleged colorful Sunset Beach icon Owl Chapman is suing The Surfers Journal (TSJ) in an Oahu Federal Court to answer to charges of libel. The jury trial, which started last week (Feb. 24), will determine whether or not TSJ was libelous for publishing “El Hombre Invisible (With Apologies to William S. Burroughs) An Owl Chapman Story.”

Written by Jeff Johnson, the article examines Johnson’s experience ordering a custom surfboard from Owl Chapman, referred to in the lawsuit as Craig Elmer “Owl” Chapman. The article appeared in the August/September 2006 issue of TSJ.

According to sources close to the case, the lawsuit was initially thrown out of court. Under appeal, the court found that some of the plaintiffs’ claims, even though the article contains figurative language and opinion, are actionable based on Ninth Circuit Court’s three-part test.

According to the court, “The Article as a whole–while a personal, narrative account fraught with descriptive, figurative language–generally implies that (1) Johnson ordered a surfboard from Plaintiff and (2) Plaintiff failed to deliver the surfboard on time as promised, took Johnson’s money up front and then deliberately avoided him for approximately two months, and failed to craft the surfboard to Johnson’s specifications.” The court found that statements containing these implications are actionable. A Honolulu jury will make a ruling soon, more than likely by the middle of this week.

Specifically Chapman’s lawsuit claims that, “A ridiculously extreme portrait (indeed a most sinister caricature) of plaintiff emerges that casts him in a false light —- and which, further, points to a grandiose egotist who is mean-spirited, self-serving, full of braggadocio, impossibly arrogant and in the end, a degenerate, pathetic and drug-addled social outcast.”

Interestingly, in the court documents reviewed, Owl Chapman asserts that he never made Jeff Johnson a surfboard. That, in fact, the entire article is make believe. I don’t know if Owl did or didn’t make Jeff Johnson a surfboard, but you’ve got to admit, that’s pretty funny.

What is not so funny is how the outcome of this case will affect the surf media. Here’s a hint, look for an increase in the use of the word “allegedly.”

And what does it say about our slowly decaying surf culture? This is really surfing’s version of “kramer vs. kramer” and you and I are the kids stuck in the middle. Owl Chapman is an, uh, “alleged” colorful character (last time I surfed Sunset he paddled up to me and told me he was “Owl Queda”) and he is one of the many strands of hemp weaved into our vast surfing web. And Mr. & Mrs. Pezman and TSJ, are two of the finest people I’ve ever known; their publication a ma & pop outfit that’s shines bright and delivers a perspective few others dare to provide. Why have we, as a surf culture, come to this? Our culture has always been different, slightly skewed and offset from mainstream society—thanks in great part to characters such as Owl and publications such as TSJ.

Sure, as a culture, we’ve inched closer and closer to societal norms, but I’d like to believe we’re still a little rough around the edges, aren’t we? I can put aside all the Hollister/Abercrombie BS, and the surfing perfume companies who sell golf, and the AMEX commercials. Those mistakes didn’t really occur within our circle of trust. Those were Wall Street decisions based on an obscene demand for double digit growth. But this, Owl vs. Pez, how did this happen? Three words: over zealous lawyers…allegedly. One of whom must have, at some point, chewed on Owl’s ear.

By the way, if you haven’t read the article in question, go online and order TSJ August/September 2006. It is a well written, insightful and charming piece. In comparison to the other dozen or so Owl Chapman stories and anecdotes I’ve encountered over the years, this one, in my opinion, made him look pretty good. Whether or not it will hinder his ability to make money as shaper, well, that’s up to the jury to decide.