It’s pretty obvious that the power of the Internet in the hands of an attention-craving, rabble-rousing person can be downright dangerous (remember a little someone named Amanda Bynes, for instance?). The Twitter phenomenon has made not thinking before you speak easier than ever before. Aside from public judgement, a few dollars in settlements, and possibly losing your job as you jet to the other side of the world (ahem, Justine Sacco), people haven’t really been held legally accountable for what they type in the Twitterverse…until now. It seems Courtney Love, the drama-loving Mrs. to the late, great Kurt Cobain, got herself into some serious hot water after authoring a 2010 tweet, in which she alleged her then lawyer was “bought off,” and is now facing a fierce prosecutor in an LA courtroom in the first ever libel trial involving Twitter (do not call it Twibel, pretty please).
Like Love herself, Courtney’s tweets have had a sordid past and caused some major personal drama along the way. Who could forget when the grunge goddess lambasted her only daughter on Twitter, alleging that she had slept with Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, causing major heartache for both Frances Bean and Grohl. Or the $430,000 settlement Love was ordered to pay designer Dawn Simorangkir, after a series of statements she made on both Myspace and Twitter implied that Simorangkir had some kind of criminal past.
Unfortunately for Courtney, her tweet-first-settle-out-of-court-later strategy did not work this time; this tweet’s got legs. Though numerous libel cases have been filed on the heels of ugly tweets, this is the first time such a case has been brought to trial. In fact, the outcome of this case could easily set the precedent for how Internet libel cases are treated in the US from now on. That’s one powerful tweet!
Before we get any further, we’ll need to get some definitions straight. Defamation is knowingly making a false statement about someone that is potentially damaging to their good reputation. It is also known as vilification, traducement, or even calumny. Whatever you wanna call it, it’s ugly business. When this statement is written down, it’s called libel. When it’s spoken, it’s called slander.
As Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Drake Bennett points out, “most of the relevant legal opinions on libel date from a time when publishing meant printing or posting something in a newspaper or magazine — institutions that, in part because of the fear of lawsuits, make some effort to keep outright falsehoods out of their pages. Twitter, on the other hand, allows any user to publish whatever he can fit into 140 characters.”
So just how does Twitter (and most of the Internet) get away with this? Why, the Communications Decency Act of 1996, of course! Lauded as a great protector of freedom of expression, Section 230 of this piece of legislation, states: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” In other words, websites hosting third-party content are not held legally responsible for the user created content (though it should be noted there are exceptions regarding intellectual property and criminal claims). This is how sites like Yelp and YouTube are able to function. The more you know.
So let’s dig into the particulars of this specific case:
Love’s former attorney, Rhonda Holmes, who was hired by Love to tackle a fraud case against the executors of her late husband’s estate, accused Love of defamation of character, after reading the following tweet sent from Courtney’s since suspended @CourtneyLoveUK account in June 2010:
“@noozjunkie I was f***ing devastated when Rhonda J Holmes Esq of san diego was bought off @fairnewsspears perhaps you can quote.”
At first, Courtney tried to play dumb claiming she was not “good” at computers and didn’t understand that her tweet was public and not just sent to the two people tagged therein. She also claimed that since her tweet was merely an “opinion,” it should not be treated as defamation (this seems tough to argue as the tweet seemed to be phrased as a statement of fact). When the judge wouldn’t buy it, Love’s defense team took another approach. They now argue that since the Internet is like the Wild West of the printed word, drenched in exaggeration, misrepresentations, rumors, opinions, and cat memes, Love’s off-the-cuff comments should simply be taken in stride.
The question now becomes: should Twitter (or the Internet at large) reshape the way our courts view defamation? Essentially, does the length of the writing — 140 characters vs. an article or an essay — affect its ability to contain libel? And how do we move forward while protecting both freedom of expression and the freedom to not have life-wrecking lies spread about you around the world wide web?
We don’t know the answers to these questions yet, but chances are we could be in for some rule changes in the near future. For now though, just sit back and watch it all unfold, and remember, tweet responsibly.