Smells Like Twitter Libel

Courtney Love, the widow of Kurt Cobain, is a defendant in a libel lawsuit that arises from a tweet she sent.  Here’s the tweet in its entirety:  “I was f—— devestated [sic] when Rhonda J. Holmes esq. of san diego was bought off @FairNewsSpears perhaps you can get a quote.”  Rhonda Holmes was Love’s lawyer in happier times, but the relationship went south when Holmes chose not to assist Love in bringing a fraud case against the people managing Cobain’s estate. 

What prompts this blog post is an article about the suit on The author seems to think this case could have major consequences on the law of “twibel” (libel on Twitter – -I didn’t make up that term). Poynter is kind of the online Bible for journalists. And I respect those folks tremendously. But I don’t agree that this case is all that earthshaking. The article identifies a number of issues in the case, none of which in my mind are affected by the platform. There is a public figure issue – is Rhonda Holmes a public figure? That matters because a public figure plaintiff has to establish actual malice. That’s a tougher standard than a private figure faces. But a person’s status as a public figure has literally nothing to do with the fact that the defendant made the comment on Twitter.

There’s also an issue in this case about whether Love’s comment was “opinion” and/or “hyperbole.” If so, she’s not liable. Libel has to arise from a false statement of fact. The Supreme Court has said there is no such thing as a false opinion. And a statement that is hyperbole is never intended to be taken literally. But again, the platform is irrelevant to that analysis. The only question is whether Love’s comment that Holmes was “bought off” states a verifiable fact. And just because she said it in a tweet doesn’t change the analysis. 

I’m not suggesting that “twibel” is identical to more traditional libel. For one thing, the nature of Twitter makes it easier to see how many people looked at the tweet. That could impact damages. In the old days, there was no reliable indicator to show exactly how many people actually saw the defamatory publication. But the underlying fundamentals of libel law, in my view apply even in a 140 character universe.