Can You Be Sued for Your Tweet?
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UPDATED: Mar 15, 2021
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Is it possible to libel someone in a tweet? It may be, but a California appellate court recently upheld a jury verdict in favor of Courtney Love, who was sued for libel by her former attorney. The jury concluded that Love did not know that her Twitter comment, suggesting that her lawyer was “bought off,” was false when she made it. Love’s case is reportedly the first defamation lawsuit to go to trial involving statements made on Twitter.
Courtney Love’s Tweet
Courtney Love, the widow of Nirvana’s lead singer Kurt Cobain, retained Attorney Rhonda Holmes to investigate concerns that she and her husband’s estate had been defrauded of millions of dollars. Holmes hired a forensic accountant and conducted a number of interviews. Several months after she was retained, Holmes told the press that she had “tracked down” thirty million dollars, that more was missing, and that she expected to file suit within thirty days.
After thirty days passed, Love asked Holmes why the complaint had not been filed. Holmes explained that her computer had been hacked, that her phone was tapped, that $140,000 had been stolen from her bank account, and that she had been accosted in a parking lot. Holmes attributed those actions to members of the conspiracy that she was investigating.
Holmes testified that Love fired her and had eighty boxes of documents pertaining to the case transferred to a different lawyer. Love testified that she did not intend to replace Holmes and was uncertain why the documents were transferred, although she thought they may have been related to an arbitration that the other lawyer was handling. Love also testified that Holmes stopped returning her calls.
Whether Holmes quit or was terminated by Love (or one of Love’s assistants) became a disputed issue at trial. Holmes sent an email to Love denying that she quit. However, Holmes did no further work on the case, did not file a complaint, and did not confirm in writing that her services had ended. Based in part on concerns raised by others, Love began to think that Holmes had abandoned the case.
Love had been engaging in a “long dialog” with two Twitter users she described as “wannabe reporters.” They asked her whether Holmes had been “bought off.” Believing the conversation to be private, Love tweeted that she was devastated when Holmes was bought off. Several minutes later, Love removed the tweet.
Love testified that she thought her comment would be read only by the two Twitter users for whom it was intended and that she believed it to be true when she wrote it. Love testified that by “bought off,” she meant that Holmes had been compromised in some way, not that she had been bribed. Love said she was thinking of Holmes’ report that she had been hacked and victimized in other ways. Love thought that someone “got to” Holmes, causing her to abandon the case out of fear for her safety.
Libel is the publication of a false statement that is damaging to another person’s reputation. Sending a tweet constitutes publication since tweets convey a written message to other people.
Some false statements are by their nature likely to injure reputations, including statements that accuse others of dishonesty. The law refers to those statements as “libel per se.” Holmes sued Love on the theory that Love committed libel per se by tweeting that Holmes had been “bought off.”
The First Amendment right allows individuals to express themselves, as such state libel laws are limited by the Constitution. A court may not award a judgment ordering the payment of damages for libel if the judgment would constitute punishment for the exercise of free speech. As a general rule, the Constitution provides no protection for libelous publications, but that rule is limited by the recognition that the public benefits from robust comment upon the actions of public figures.
In 1964, the Supreme Court ruled that courts may hold an individual responsible for libel against a public figure only if the person who published the falsehood acted with actual malice. It defined actual malice as knowingly publishing a false statement or recklessly publishing a statement despite the publisher’s awareness of its probable falsehood. Even if the publisher should have known that the statement was false, courts will hold the publisher accountable for libel only if the publisher actually entertained serious doubts that the published statement was true.
Public figures are people who invite the media’s attention, including politicians and movie stars. A more limited category of public figures includes individuals who “have thrust themselves to the forefront of particular controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved.” In her lawsuit against Love, Holmes did not dispute that she was a public figure who was required to prove actual malice.
The Court’s Decision
The jury found that Love’s tweet was untrue. In other words, it decided that Holmes was not “bought off.” At the same time, the jury decided that Love did not know that the statement was untrue, and did not have serious doubts about it, when she made it.
The appellate court decided that credible evidence supported the jury’s verdict. The jury was entitled to believe Love’s testimony that by “bought off,” she meant that Holmes had abandoned her case in response to intimidation. The fact that Holmes did not file the complaint that she had promised to file, did not respond to Love’s phone calls, and did not send a letter confirming that she no longer represented Love gave Love reason to believe that Holmes had been compromised. Under the circumstances, it was not reckless for Love to believe that Holmes had been induced to stop representing her. Love may have used the phrase “bought off” carelessly, but proof of negligence is not enough to establish actual malice.
People who bring libel actions against public figures rarely win because it is very difficult to prove actual malice. The jury’s verdict in the Courtney Love lawsuit exemplifies the uphill battle that public figures will continue to face when they believe that their reputations have been injured by untrue tweets.