Comedian free to tell mother-in-law jokes

LOS ANGELES, CA Sunda Croonquist, whose shtick for years has been to describe her life as a half-black, half-Swedish woman who marries into a Jewish family, was sued two years ago after her mother-in-law, sister-in-law and brother-in-law said her jokes were holding them up to public ridicule.

In a 21-page ruling issued Friday, U.S. District Judge Mary L. Cooper of New Jersey concluded that the examples they cited -- including one in which Croonquist says her sister-in-law's voice sounds like a cat in heat -- fell under the category of protected speech.

Many of the jokes, Cooper said, were clearly statements of opinion and not fact and therefore protected by the First Amendment. The cat-in-heat joke, the judge said, quoting from a previous court decision, was "colorful, figurative rhetoric that reasonable minds would not take to be factual."

The suit was filed in New Jersey because two of the plaintiffs, Croonquist's brother-in-law and sister-in-law, Neil and Shelley Edelman, live there. Croonquist lives in Beverly Hills and her mother-in-law, Ruth Zafrin, lives in the New York City borough of Brooklyn.

Adding another family twist to the case was the fact Croonquist's husband, Mark Zafrin, is a partner in the law firm that successfully represented her.

"He's excited that I won, but he's not happy about the legal fees that his firm had to incur," she said.

Croonquist, who is appearing at the Laugh Factory in Hollywood on Saturday night, said her audience should expect to hear more in-law jokes.

"In honor of Henny Youngman, why would I stop?" she asked, citing the legendary comedian whose signature line was "Take my wife -- please."

Neither Zafrin nor her attorney, Lawrence Wertheim of Old Bridge, N.J., responded to requests for comment. A telephone listing for the Edelmans could not be located.

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