It was just a matter of time before someone somewhere sued for something someone else said in a tweet. After all, 140 characters is more than enough to say something nasty. That Courtney Love is the defendant in the first-ever libel case involving Twitter (dubbed “Twible” — pronounced with a long “i”) only makes sense.
The case involves a tweet that the former wife of the late Kurt Cobain (frontman for the band Nirvana who shot himself almost 20 years ago — where did the time go?) sent about her former attorney Rhonda Holmes. The tweet read “I was f——[redacted] devestated [sic] when Rhonda J. Holmes esq. of san diego was bought off @FairNewsSpears perhaps you can get a quote.” Love has deleted the tweet, but the case is still in court. The smart money is on Love losing this one in what may wind up being a major precedent-setting case.
Libel and slander are two different varieties of defamation. The difference is that libel is written and slander is spoken. The laws governing them in the U.S. are identical. Now, I am not a lawyer, but I have been a professional writer for over 30 years and have avoided being served papers for libel, let alone been to court over it. The reason is I know the law and follow it. I don’t think Love knows it, and she certainly didn’t follow it.
There are basically four things you have to consider in a libel case. First, whether the statement is true. Under American law, if what you have stated is true, you are almost completely off the hook. Since we don’t have the evidence in front of us, I am working on a hunch here, but I suspect Holmes didn’t take a bribe — lawyers usually know that creates huge career issues for them.
The second factor is whether the information was conveyed to someone other than the plaintiff. If Love had simply written a letter to Holmes saying “you took a bribe, b*tch,” that would be OK because it would be between the two of them. The tweet was sent out to all of Love’s Twitter followers, meeting the standard of being published under the law.
Third, the plaintiff has to be identifiable as the person defamed. “The guy in the suit on Wall Street took a bribe” won’t cut it as there are lots of guys in suits on Wall Street. Rhonda J. Holmes, Esq. of San Diego is about as identifiable as you can get without publishing a photo and social security number.
Fourth and last, the court has to decide whether the plaintiff suffered some damage to his or her reputation, and here is where the idea of malice comes in. This is the only area where I can see Love having a shot at winning the case. A lawyer accused of taking a bribe is clearly bad for the person’s reputation. Love could argue that the tone and content was so exaggerated that it couldn’t be taken seriously, that she was not acting maliciously. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Johnson set a trial date right after he rejected that argument. Alternatively, Love could argue that she was mistaken, that she genuinely believed what she tweeted but had no malice because of that belief. At this stage, that’s going to look like clutching at straws.
The lesson here is the same as with any tweet — before you hit “send,” take a breath and think about it.