A crossword is just a set of blank spaces, so how did Abe Saffron know the clue referred to him? The paper’s problem was that it also published the answers. Otherwise, it could have claimed that it had said nothing at all about him, and that if people filled in the squares with his name, that was their problem.
This very point was considered many years ago by English humorist AP Herbert in one of his series of “Misleading Cases.” In A Cross Action, the Bishop of Bowl and others sued Herbert’s hero, Albert Haddock, for compiling crossword puzzles that allegedly defamed them. Sir Antony Dewlap, the fictional attorney-general, outlined the case as follows:
“It will be suggested by the defence… that in all this the various plaintiffs have nothing to complain of but a coincidence or series of coincidences; that the defendant has made no use of their names directly or indirectly… that the words he has written, ‘2. Bibulous bishop’, are not, by him at least, connected with the aged Bishop of Bowl, and that if any persons have chosen to write down in a space so labelled the word ‘Bowl’ those persons and not he are the publishers of the libel, if any, and it is against them that this action should have been brought.”
What a pity Abe Saffron’s jury didn’t have to consider this argument!