Twitter + Libel = Twibel?

Friday, January 17, 2014


The first Twitter Libel case in the United States went on trial last week. The actress and recording artist Courtney Love is accused of defaming her former lawyer in a 2010 tweet. Bob speaks to Ellyn Angelotti, a lawyer and member of the Poynter Institute's faculty, who says the decision in this case could set a social media precedent for defamation -- and explains how the libel standard for print could apply to an 140-character format.


Ellyn Angelotti

Hosted by:

Bob Garfield

Comments [7]


Where is the transcript so I don't have to listen to you mouth-breathing?

Jan. 22 2014 12:08 PM
Ken from Los Angeles

On the one hand, this story is much, much better done than most coverage of the Courtney Love libel case, and uses much, much less sensationalism and bad generalizations about law. In particular, the story correctly focuses on the key issue: how does the context of speech impact whether we treat speech as asserting fact (and therefore potentially defamatory) or opinion or hyperbole (and therefore not)?

On the other hand, the story still goes a bit to far in terms of saying this case is precedent-setting. There's already lots of California cases talking about how online speech, particularly in forums known for hyperbole, is more likely to be seen as opinion and less as fact. Also, the story indulges a bit in suggesting that a state trial-court decision or a state trial can be "precedent setting," which it isn't, at least not in the way that lawyers mean.

Finally, pushing the term "Twibel" is unforgivable. I sentence you to read nothing but tweets containing "YOLO" for one month.

My post on the awfulness of other coverage of this case:

Jan. 20 2014 04:05 PM
Eric Goebelbecker from Maywood, NJ

What a disappointing piece. I don't even know where to start.

To echo @JackMcCullough, "twibel" is a neologism worthy of Buzzfeed or HuffPo, and you sounded silly repeating it, Bob.

I think @Gaelen has it dead right, we don't need new laws or new rulings to solve the question of libel (or any other from of defamation) on twitter and it seems like On The Media should be one of the venues to point that out.

This quote sticks out:

"...because the courts don't understand the technology well enough to regulate and they don't necessarily want to chill speech because of the first amendment."

Do the courts need to understand the technology to make a decision regarding Twitter? Or does someone need to take a few minutes to explain following, and tweeting, and character limits and how long a tweet lives

And how exactly would a court "regulate" twitter anyway?

I hate to say it, but there must have been someone more knowledgable on this topic to speak to, or at least an one more voice with a more informed viewpoint.

Jan. 20 2014 01:57 PM

Thanks for the comments.

@WBT: That comic is great. How appropriate for this topic.

@JackMcCullough: You may be right; the U.S. courts may apply traditional libel laws to this case -- and Milkovich has been a very instructive case that emphasizes the context of the content. The media world has changed substantially: now everyone can publish and develop an audience. So, how will courts analyze context given the technological developments and changes in the publishing vehicles?

Gaelen: You make a great point. At this time, this case is a lower court case, and its outcome will not be controlling, but merely persuasive outside its jurisdiction. However, given the lack of jurisprudence on social media law, many are watching this court's analysis. My comparison to Sullivan, and my interest in this case, is how the court will balance the first amendment with the public interest in the right to protect one's reputation -- in the context of social media.

My interest on this topic is really on the remedies available to victims of defamatory comments on social media. Unfortunately, these victims can't afford lengthy and expensive litigation, like Love can (plus the damage is already done once the tweet is sent). So, how can we find ways to fight this bad, false speech with more speech (i.e. help these victims strengthen their voices to correct the falsehoods and minimize the harm caused)? Is there a solution that encourages productive discourse and discourages diatribes?

Jan. 19 2014 08:29 PM

Today's comic is right on target for this segment:

Jan. 19 2014 01:47 PM

Would you please stop using that stupid neologism "twibel"? There is nothing about a claim of libel that makes it different if the allegedly defamatory statement is published on Twitter and not a newspaper or traditional web page.

The statement that a lawyer was "bought off" appears to be a defamatory statement of fact. I'm afraid that this story seems to be perpetuating the false idea that opinions cannot be libelous. There is no difference between saying "X is a thief" and "In my opinion, X is a thief", and this was the holding of the Supreme Court in Milkovich v. Lorain Journal.

Jan. 19 2014 10:39 AM

I'm just writing this comment to note how silly this segment was. Of course defamation applies to tweeting, it is a cable of being used to communicate intentionally false information, and, as your guest might of mentioned, numerous cases have been filed and successfully survived motions for summary judgment. In fact, Love herself settled a case for almost a half a million dollars weeks before trial.

The fact that this is the first case to go to trial is immaterial. The law works through analogy, and established principles of defamation in a number of analogous formats (eg. blog posts or comments, facebook pages, etc) will be easily applied to case discussed above.

Finally, to compare a district court defamation case to Sullivan, a major constitutional decision, should be either legal or journalistic malpractice.

Jan. 18 2014 03:35 PM

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