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When do you defame someone on Twitter? Despite the platform’s reputation for outrageous insults, American courts have yet to say when — if ever — users cross the line.
This could finally change after a Los Angeles judge ruled last week that singer Courtney Love must face a jury trial over a 2011 tweet in which she slammed her former lawyer by writing (all spelling and punctuation decisions from the original): “I was fucking devestated when Rhonda J. Holmes esq. of san diego was bought off @FairNewsSpears perhaps you can get a quote.” That tweet has since been deleted.
It was the “bought off” comment that led Holmes and her law firm to file a libel claim against Love, a serial Twitter miscreant whose online antics led her own daughter to write “Twitter should ban my mother.”
The case, set to go before a jury in two weeks, could finally clear up when a Twitter statement is libel versus when — as Love is claiming in this case — it’s simply “satirical,” or some other sort of opinion.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, which reported last week’s ruling, the judge refused to dismiss the case on its face. This means the jury will take a closer look at questions like whether the “bought off” claim was true and whether Love tweeted it out of malice and, most importantly, if Love was simply stating an opinion (a defense to libel).
The outcome could set some Twitter rules for Americans at a time when libel law is affecting the platform in other countries. In the U.K., for instance, a minor TV personality agreed in October to pay $25,000 for retweeting false information.
I am able to warn others of the dangers of retweeting,” said the British man at the time.
In America, which has stronger free speech laws than the U.K., the specter of libel lawsuits could chill Twitter’s use as a free-wheeling platform where all sorts of views — even racial ones — are continually debated and debunked. Some people, like my colleague Mathew Ingram, argue that false statements on Twitter are quickly mitigated because the platform is like a “self-cleaning oven.”
In America, there have been a number of other Twitter defamation cases, but all have settled before trial.