Courtney Love, Twitter, and Libel Laws: A Landmark Case is Under Way

14 Jan

Journalists, publishers, and social media aficionados are keeping an eye on Gordon & Holmes et al v. Love. The outcome could define how the definition of defamation applies to a Twitter post–commonly known as a “tweet”. These short posts to followers of the account are limited to 140 characters.

Back in 2010, Courtney Love, former wife of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain,  tweeted “I was f—— devestated [sic] when Rhonda J. Holmes esq. of san diego was bought off @FairNewsSpears perhaps you can get a quote.” The tweet referenced her former attorney. Holms and the law firm claimed the tweet was defamatory and filed a complaint in 2011.  Love deleted the tweet shortly after posting it, and argued that it was an opinion and not defamatory. A judge disagreed and the case is now before the California Superior Court.

Nicknamed “Twibel”, the combination of “Twitter” and “Libel”, the issue may find itself defined in this case. Poynter’s Ellyn Angelotti writes:

Love’s case potentially could become the social media generation’s New York Times vs. Sullivan and set a precedent for future Twitter cases.

The Supreme Court’s landmark case New York Times vs. Sullivan was the first case to consider the First Amendment implications of defamation. At the crux of this, is how defamation standards balance the First Amendment’s promise of free speech and the public’s interest in protecting a person’s reputation.

Much has changed in both technology and defamation law in the more than 40 years that have passed since Sullivan. And very soon we may have a landmark case in the area of Twibel.

Libel cases in the United States go as far back as the Zenger trial in the early 1700’s. In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964),  Associate Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. argued in his opinion that “the First Amendment protects the publication of all statements, even false ones, about the conduct of public officials except when statements are made with actual malice.”  While this has stood for decades, the medium itself may now be in the spotlight. According to Angelotti, the courts will  most likely consider who is a public or private figure as it applies to Twitter, and what is a matter of public concern on that particular social media platform.

Poynter is covering the story and has published an examination of what this case is about and the possible implications.

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