Crease and Desist

Major sporting events don’t want objects flying around the stands or onto the field. That sounds like a pretty good rule, as you don’t want fans or players to get hurt — that’d be bad for everyone involved. To avoid problems, even items which are generally harmless are often banned; the New York Yankees, for example, explicitly state that beach balls are prohibited. But generally speaking, such specificity isn’t required. The general rule makes enough sense and is easily enough enforced — usually. Unfortunately for one fan of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, the team did not enforce the rule to his liking. So in 1974, he — an attorney — wrote the letter below, demanding action by threatening a lawsuit.

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The letter, by attorney Dale O. Cox, spells out the grievance. Cox, a season ticket holder, was upset that other fans were flying paper airplanes “generally made out of the game program,” and tossing them around. Cox was concerned about “the risk of serious eye injury and perhaps an ear injury” that such paper projectiles could cause, so he asked the team to stop such behavior. And then there’s the legal threat: “I will hold you responsible for any injury sustained by any person in my party attending one of your sporting events.” Fighting words, in legal-speak.

The Browns’ general counsel, James Bailey, replied to Mr. Cox — that’s what would generally happen in a matter like this, and in this case, he did so by a letter dated just a few days later. But the letter didn’t inform the aggrieved Mr. Cox of the team’s decision to crack down on paper airplanes. It didn’t have any legalese in it, explaining the team’s view of the law. In fact, it didn’t say much of anything. Yet, it may be the best legal reply ever written. You can see it below.

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A few years later, the Cleveland Scene, an alt-weekly, discovered the above letters (without explanation as to how), and the letter became a cultural meme of sorts. (It recently made its way into an episode of NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!, as a trivia question.) As absurd as Mr. Bailey’s response seems, it’s real. In early 2011, a reporter from the Cleveland Plain Dealer tracked down Bailey and Cox, both of whom recalled the response fondly. Cox even admitted to using a similar reply tactic “a couple times [himself] since.”

Bonus fact: In 1994, Apple Computer engineers gave a prototype the code name “Carl Sagan,” after the astrophysicist. (The naming was a joke of sorts — Sagan’s informal and somewhat apocryphal catchphrase was “billions and billions,” and that’s how much money the Apple team hoped to make off the new computer.) Sagan objected, sending a cease-and-desist letter to Apple, claiming that the use of his name could be erroneously considered an endorsement of the product on his behalf. Apple’s legal team mandated a change to the product’s code name, so the engineering team re-named it “BHA,” short for “Butt-Head Astronomer.” Sagan then sued, claiming the name change was libelous. He lost, but explored other avenues of litigation, and ultimately, Apple and Sagan settled out of court. The product team at Apple changed the name again, this time to “LaW” — “Lawyers are Wimps.”

From the ArchivesTax Refund: How a lawyer made half a million dollars for an hour’s worth of work.

Related: “Billions and Billions” by Carl Sagan. 4.3 stars on 101 reviews.