Defamation on Twitter

It should be pretty straightforward. Telling people that someone is a thief, a drug-pushing prostitute with a history of assault and battery who lost custody of her own child. But this case involves two complicating factors.

  • The case involves celebrities. It’s Courtney Love making these claims about her designer Dawn Simorangkir.
  • She did it using Twitter

The Hollywood Reporter writes:

So on March 17, 2009, Love took to her Twitter account and began hurling a stream of shocking insults at the designer known as the “Boudoir Queen.” Love’s tweets, which instantly landed in the Twitter feeds of her 40,000 or so followers (and countless others via retweets), announced that Simorangkir was a drug-pushing prostitute with a history of assault and battery who lost custody of her own child and capitalized on Love’s fame before stealing from her. “She has received a VAST amount of money from me over 40,000 dollars and I do not make people famous and get raped TOO!” Love wrote.

That tirade, along with others the Hole frontwoman unleashed on social media platforms including MySpace and during the next four days, form the basis of a unique lawsuit headed to court in January: the first high-profile defamation trial over a celebrity’s comments on Twitter.

So now its off to court which will first look at the truth in Love’s claims – telling the truth is the best defence in defamation – then the court will value if Love’s statements are protected opinions and then they will see if the protections afforded to journalists may apply in the case of twitter users.

The court in the present case may firstly address whether these comments are truthful (which is the most obvious defense to a claim of defamation), are protected opinions of Ms. Love or rise to the level of defamation. Then the court may wade into the issue of whether Twitter users are bloggers with rights akin to journalists.

Apparently Love’s defence is also planning to include a medical expert to support the argument – if none of the other defences work – that she was not subjectively malicious: in other words she could not understand how her tweets would be understood by others.

Wikimedia not liable for online defamation

In the case of Bauer v. Wikimedia et al, a New Jersey judge has dismissed defamation claims against the operator of Wikipedia (ruling).

From the EFF blog:

This case began when literary agent Barbara Bauer sued Wikimedia, claiming the organization was liable for statements identifying her as one of the “dumbest of the twenty worst” agents and that she had “no documented sales at all.” EFF and the law firm of Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton represented Wikimedia, and moved to dismiss the case in May, arguing that under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, operators of “interactive computer services” such as Wikipedia cannot be held liable for users’ comments.

User generated sites are going to get (and have gotten) involved in defamation-like cases and it is necessary that the parent company should have some form of immunity even if such immunity can be abused. It’s nice to see that it worked in this case.

Another question is whether or not calling someone the “dumbest” can be considered to be defamatory at all…