Question Mark Lets James Woods Beat Defamation Suit
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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021
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The actor James Woods has prevailed in a defamation lawsuit — thanks to a question mark.
Woods (71), a conservative known for films like Salvador and Casino, was sued by Portia Boulger, a volunteer and pledged convention delegate for US Senator Bernie Sanders in the 2016 US Presidential campaign.
On March 11, 2016, the Donald Trump presidential campaign held a rally in Chicago, Illinois. That evening, the Chicago Tribune tweeted a photo of a woman at the rally wearing a Trump t-shirt and giving a Nazi salute.
The next day, a Twitter account called @voxday posted the photo along with a photo of Boulger.
The tweet said (falsely) that “The ‘trump Nazi’ is Portia Boulger, who runs the Women for Bernie Sanders Twitter account. It’s another media plant.”
Within minutes, Woods retweeted the post along with the comment, “So-called #Trump ‘Nazi’ is a #BernieSanders agitator/operative?”
Woods has more than 350,000 Twitter followers, and his tweet was re-tweeted more than 5,000 times, including by Donald Trump, Jr.
In fact, Boulger wasn’t the woman shown at the Trump rally, as the Hollywood Reporter noted.
As the court’s opinion states, the woman at the Trump rally was quickly identified as Birgitt Peterson of Yorkville, Illinois.
Woods then tweeted a correction, stating that “Various followers have stated that the Nazi Salute individual and the #Bernie campaign company are NOT the same person.”
However, he didn’t delete his earlier tweet.
About 10 days after Woods’ original tweet, Boulger’s lawyer wrote to Woods’ lawyer asking to have the original tweet deleted and for Woods to tweet a retraction and apology.
The lawyer denied that the tweet was defamatory, but said that he had asked Woods to delete it, which Woods did.
Woods also posted three tweets to clarify that Boulger was not the “Nazi salute lady.”
However, during the eleven days that the Woods tweet remained live, Boulger received hundreds of obscene and threatening messages, including death threats and calls to her home, according to the court.
Boulger sued Woods for defamation and invasion of privacy.
To prove defamation under Ohio law, a plaintiff must show:
- a false statement of fact was made
- the statement was defamatory
- the statement was published
- the plaintiff suffered injury as a proximate result of the publication
- the defendant acted with the requisite degree of fault.
Asking a Question
Woods argued that his tweet wasn’t a false statement because it merely asked a question and invited his followers to draw their own conclusions.
The judge found that without the question mark, the tweet would clearly be a statement of fact under Ohio law.
But the question mark cannot be ignored. The vast majority of courts to consider questions as potential defamatory statements have found them not to be assertions of fact. Rather, a question indicates a defendant’s “lack of definitive knowledge about the issue” and “invites the reader to consider” various possibilities…. “[I]nquiry itself, however embarrassing or unpleasant to the subject, is not accusation.”
As reported by the New York Times, Woods himself was a plaintiff in a Twitter defamation suit. In 2016, he sued an anonymous Twitter user who called him a “cocaine addict.”
The case settled after the defendant died.
Photo Credit: James Woods 2015.jpg, More details James Woods, Beverly Hills, California on December 24, 2015 – Photo by Glenn Francis of www.PacificProDigital.com, Glenn Francis (User:Toglenn), Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0).