Tweetering on the Edge of Free Speech

11/14/2009 01:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The tennis world breathed a collective sigh of relief, when after one of the most painful losses of his career, Andy Roddick sent out an upbeat message to over one hundred thousand followers on Twitter.

Defying the laws of grammar and just barely keeping to the more stringent 140-character limit, he wrote, "thanks again for all the responses!! all is good .. sun came up today :) all the support has been overwhelming and humbling!!"

If not for the microblogging service that exploded to unprecedented popularity by informing earthlings about the discovery of water ice on Mars, transmitting valuable information during unforeseen terror attacks, and setting off civilian revolutions against authoritarian regimes, the world would have had no way of knowing that America's top tennis player took little time to get back to business after his loss to longtime nemesis and World Number One Roger Federer in an epic Wimbledon final earlier this year.

Lack of geniality has never been a fault of Roddick. Quick to come up with a funny retort, be it in the face of a heart-wrenching defeat or a sweeping victory, the Austin native is known to engage tennis fans on and off the court with his affable banter.

Twitter offers him something more: an outlet to connect with tennis fans without mediation, and to keep the conversation going long after the final trophy has been presented, and his fellow countrymen--and the media--divert their attention to more popular ballgames featuring impenetrable human walls, mobs of angry fans, lithe cheerleaders and cart wheeling mascots.

"I like it because it's an avenue to kind of reach out and share as much as you want," Roddick said of Twitter in an interview to the New York Times.

Last weekend, before the final grand slam of the season commenced in New York, U.S. Open authorities sent a "Twitter warning" to all players, cautioning them against divulging "inside information" through their tweets.

Roddick was quick to share his not-so-subtle thoughts on the notice. "I think its lame the U.S. Open is trying to regulate our tweeting," he said on--well--Twitter. "I understand the on-court issue but not sure they can tell us if we can't do it on our own time ... we'll see."

The Tennis Integrity Unit, which was formed last year owing to match-fixing concerns, is worried about the leaking of sensitive information such as injuries, weather, court conditions, and other factors that may be used by sports bettors and gamblers.

While this is a legitimate concern, it certainly doesn't seem worthy of imposing restrictions on a medium that has opened up the sporting world in extraordinary ways. Especially considering the fact that the International Tennis Federation seems to have done little to crack down on perpetrators of match fixing in the last few years.

It should, perhaps, turn its attention to where the problem can actually be resolved: resources for the Integrity Unit, which is manned by just two full-time employees, and has not revealed any information on over 45 matches under suspicion of match fixing since last year, supposedly under investigation.

It would help to focus on that instead of fretting over relatively innocuous remarks made by tennis players about their fantasy football leagues or favorite iPhone games.

The US Open itself maintains a Twitter page to keep fans updated about upcoming and ongoing matches, scores, polls, interviews, contests, milestones, and tournament gear, in order to get across concise information in real time.

It is this same reason that keeps players from Shaq to Steven Jackson to Danica Patrick Twittering about their latest trip to the zoo or their case of Mondays, even while promoting photo shoots, endorsements and accolades. The fans, for their part, can't seem to get enough.

The running joke about Twitter, "who cares that you had a ham sandwich for lunch" doesn't apply to celebrities. Like it or not, people do care about what their favorite actor or football star ate for lunch. The San Diego Chargers, meanwhile, have made clear that they don't. Reason why the organization fined cornerback Antonio Cromartie $2,500 for complaining about training-camp food on the microblog.

Chargers coach Norv Turner is said to have informed Cromartie and his team that they were not to tweet anything critical of the organization on their Twitter pages. There was a much-deserved uproar over the incident. As an AP report pointed out, "The Chargers use Twitter as a promotional tool, but apparently are worried about the players being too honest."

Mud slinging by athletes aside, there is the more legitimate concern that players

may reveal details about strategies and injuries, thus causing liabilities to their teams. For instance, when Minnesota Vikings' Bernard Berrian exaggerated quarterback Tarvaris Jackson's knee injury on Twitter, there was fear that it would be read as a sign of the quarterback's vulnerability.

So, is there a valid fear that players could put their teams or opponents in jeopardy by revealing sensitive information on social media? Sure. But the answer is not to censor online information. If it doesn't come through a player's tweet, it's probably going to be heard in the locker room and picked up by media the old-fashioned way.

Sure, Twitter allows an easier and more unrestricted vehicle for off-the-cuff, sometimes irresponsible statements, and is bound to bring with it complications we haven't dealt with before.

So be it. If a tweet could be deemed libelous, as evidenced by sufficient damage caused to the tweet victim, the latter should be allowed to take action. As Alexia Tsotsis makes clear in the LA Weekly blog: "According to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, you the individual, not the Internet Service Provider (in this case Twitter) are responsible for your libelous i.e. malicious and untrue words."

Most media law experts seem to agree that the poster is liable for any libel charges on social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, or a blog comments thread.

This doesn't, however, justify censorship of content posted on these various media. While tournament authorities can regulate players' actions on the grounds, off-court regulation of their speech comes dangerously close to threatening freedom of expression.

Players can be urged to exercise judgment while revealing information. Beyond that, any list of dos and don'ts is simply ridiculous. Quite like one NFL team executive's suggestion to players, "do not tweet about anything more than what you are eating."

But it was tweeting about eating that got Cromartie in trouble.

While rules can specify time and manner of broadcast, they cannot control content. Reason why after several teams caused a furor by banning Twitter use by players, the NFL has finally settled for merely regulating the time of usage with respect to games and practice.

The US Open has never allowed players to use any form of electronic device on court during matches, and this effectively rules out Twitter use as well. It would be preposterous to try to control what players say off the court: on Twitter or anywhere else.

In other words, what a player chooses to tweet, just like what he decides to say, should be at his or her own discretion. And there is only one real way to do this: exercising common sense.