A California jury recently found in favor of Courtney Love in the nation’s first libel-via-Twitter, or “Twibel,” lawsuit. After eight days of testimony and three hours of deliberations, the jury determined that Love was not liable for publicly posting a disparaging tweet about her former attorney, Rhonda Holmes, concluding that Love did not realize the message contained false information. Holmes had been seeking $8,000,000 in damages.
The dispute began in 2010 when Holmes decided not to represent Love in a fraud action involving the estate of Love’s late husband, grunge musician Kurt Cobain. Convinced that Holmes had been bribed, Love tweeted that she was “devestated [sic] when Rhonda J. Holmes esq. of san diego was bought off.” Love, who confessed to being technologically inept, claimed that she intended to send a private message to an investigative journalist, posting the message publicly by mistake. Love erased the tweet shortly after it was posted.
Although Love’s case was the first Twitter libel suit to make it in front of a jury, accusations of defamation-in-140-characters-or-less are becoming more common. In fact, Love herself settled a similar lawsuit in 2009 after she tweeted unflattering remarks about a fashion designer. In 2011, a blogger in Oregon settled with a local doctor after tweeting an apparently unfounded allegation that the doctor had offered to trade medical treatment for sex. And an Illinois court dismissed a 2009 complaint by a realtor against one of its tenants after concluding that the tenant’s tweet—“Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon realty thinks its okay”—was too vague to qualify as tortious under state libel law.
Twitter users can harm the reputations of individuals without necessarily subjecting themselves to the personal jurisdiction of the states in which that harm occurs. In addition, because many reasonable readers do not expect informal tweets to convey factual information, courts may be likely to treat tweets as expressing opinions, which are afforded greater protection than purely factual assertions.
These cases highlight a few of the difficulties plaintiffs face in using traditional defamation and libel law to protect themselves from damaging statements on Internet self-publishing services like Twitter. Like other Internet self-publishing services, Twitter does not require its users to have any direct contact with the followers who read their posts. As a result, Twitter users can harm the reputations of individuals without necessarily subjecting themselves to the personal jurisdiction of the states in which that harm occurs. In addition, because many reasonable readers do not expect informal tweets to convey factual information, courts may be likely to treat tweets as expressing opinions, which are afforded greater protection than purely factual assertions.
Plaintiffs face at least one other major barrier to using traditional law as a remedy for damaging statements published on the Internet. Defamation and libel law developed in the era of traditional print journalism and publishing, when large, stable, and deep-pocketed media companies controlled most of the nation’s print publications. Today, almost anyone can instantly self-publish potentially defamatory statements to audiences numbering in the thousands or even millions, and federal law generally exempts most web hosting services and ISPs from liability for defamatory statements made by their users. As a result, it can be difficult for the victims of libelous tweets to locate or recover adequate damages from individuals who defame them online.
Despite the setback, Twitter’s ever-increasing popularity makes it almost inevitable that more Twibel will eventually make their way into courtrooms across the country. For her part, Love—who at last check had over 255,000 Twitter followers—claims to have learned from her mistakes. “I’ve been tweeting nicely for like three years now,” she reportedly said after the trial.