In a landmark case that will set a major precedent for online speech, Courtney Love has become the first person ever in the United States to go to trial over a libelous tweet and be cleared by a jury.
This is a particularly noteworthy case as it is a sign of the legitimacy of Twitter as a publishing platform in the eyes of the law. The standards of traditional publishing are now being applied to the ephemerality of online commentary -- and that's good for freedom of speech because it's bringing an established means of legal recourse to both those speaking and those spoken ill of on social media.
To offer some background, in 2010, the volatile Love fired off a tweet stating her lawyer at the time, Rhonda Holmes, had been "bought off."
"@noozjunkie I was f***ing devastated when Rhonda J Holmes Esq of san diego was bought off @fairnewsspears perhaps you can get a quote."
Love was upset that Holmes refused to help her take legal action against the managers of her late husband Kurt Cobain's estate. In Holmes's $8 million lawsuit, her lawyers argued that Love deliberately used her "fame and influence to reach millions of people in attempt to cause irreparable damage to plaintiff's business, name, and reputation."
Last Friday, the jury ruled that while Love's tweet contained false information and naturally harmed Holmes's reputation, the rock star did not know that it was false and therefore not guilty of libel.
Under U.S. law, libel is defined as the written form of defamation where false information is published to harm another's reputation. In this case, Holmes's lawyers could not clearly prove that Love did not know her claim that Holmes had been "bought off" was untrue.
Now, whether Love's tweet was an opinion or not is a different question with serious implications. Opinions are not verifiable statements and therefore not considered defamatory, so if Tweets are deemed as opinion, users would be granted additional legal protection.
Love's lawyers initially argued that the case should not even go before a jury since tweets are clearly opinion and in line with the hyperbolic and opinionated norm of online discourse; however, a judge rejected this argument and where Twitter falls in protected online speech is now uncertain.
It is also particularly important to note in this case that only one or two people saw Love's tweet before she deleted it. According to Jeff John Roberts, a reporter and former intellectual property and media lawyer, "[I]t doesn't matter if the statement was seen by one person or a million."
"Libel law only requires that a statement was published to a third party," Roberts explained. This means any user could be liable for what they tweet even if it exists for a few seconds.
Fear not, "Twibel" lawsuits are not an infringement of free speech per se, but rather the transferal of standards from more traditional media to Twitter and Love's libel case is the natural next frontier in the ongoing battle over free speech.
Just as print journalists were taken to court for libel, and more recently bloggers, so too are Twitter users being sued for libel, which in turn has opened a path for users to be formally protected by the Constitution.
Print journalists are protected against libel by the First Amendment, and recently, those same constitutional rights were extended to bloggers who have been sued for libel. Earlier this month, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a blogger who had previously lost a defamation trial over a blog post she had written.
The Judge argued, "The protections of the First Amendment do not turn on whether the defendant was a trained journalist, formally affiliated with traditional news entities ... As the Supreme Court has accurately warned, a First Amendment distinction between the institutional press and other speakers is unworkable."
It remains to be seen whether Twitter users will be considered journalists, but Love's trial is only the opening salvo in what is likely to be a complicated battle for what courts consider protected social media speech and who gets those protections.
While the future of Twitter speech may be uncertain, it is clear that when it comes to the court room, social media is now considered a legitimate form of publishing, and with that legitimacy also comes protections for those on the opposite end of the spectrum, the subjects of Tweets, individuals who are the focus of viral smear campaigns or nasty comments.
Defamation law is aimed at protecting individuals and their reputations from those with the ability to command a large audience -- the press. But now that Twitter has given users the ability to broadcast to a wide audience, anyone can easily smear someone's reputation.
Even though this opens the door for future lawsuits, it officially links Twitter to an established means of legal recourse along with years of First Amendment precedent, so rather than stifling freedom of speech, Twibel suits could actually strengthen it.
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