Courtney Love Wins her Twitter Defamation Case – What Does It Mean For You?

Courtney at the Tabernacle by Katjusa Cisar from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Courtney at the Tabernacle by Katjusa Cisar from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Last week, a California jury reached a verdict in the Courtney Love Twitter defamation case – the first Twitter defamation case to go to trial. Love hired attorney Rhonda Holmes to represent her in a fraud case against the people who were managing Kurt Cobain’s estate. Their professional relationship didn’t work out, and in 2010, Love posted a tweet that said in part, “I was f***ing devestated [sic] when Rhonda J. Holmes esq. of san diego was bought off.” Holmes sued Love for defamation.

In general, defamation requires a false statement about a person told to a third party, that hurts that person’s reputation. Essentially, Holmes argument was that the tweet was lie and that it damaged her reputation. Defamation is a state-law issue so check how the law is written in your state.

Initially, I was surprised when I saw that Love won this lawsuit, until I read the full article. Then I made a video explaining why Courtney Love won this defamation case.

The law applies different standard to defamation involving public persons versus private persons. When a public person is defamed, the victim can prevail if she can prove that the person making the statement acted with malice – meaning they knew or should have known that they were lying when they made the statement. When a private person claims they were defamed, they only have to show that there was a lie about them that hurt their reputation.  

Holmes isn’t a celebrity lawyer. She’s just a person. You might think that Holmes would be treated like a private person, but the court said she was a public person in regards to this case because of her affiliation with Love. (Some people are public people all the time – i.e., celebrities – and some people are public figures only regarding certain issues.) Here, the jury believed Love when she said she didn’t know she was lying when she made the statement, so that’s why she won the case.

So what does this mean for you? This case suggests that you can be Joe Average Nobody (private person) in your day-to-day life but if you are affiliated with a celebrity, you can be a public person in regards to your dealings with them. If you claim that your celebrity friend defamed you, you may have a higher bar to clear than if you were defamed by your Joe Average Nobody friend.

Here’s something else to think about – celebrities are public people because they put themselves into  the public spotlight. If you are “internet famous” or put yourself online for all to see via your blog, YouTube channel, or on other social media platforms, you may become a public person. When you’re a public person, you can expect more criticism and the law will protect your critics against defamation claims as long as they didn’t know or couldn’t have known that they were lying about you when they did it.

There is no cut-and-dry equation to determine whether you are a public or private person in regards to a defamation case unless you are an obvious celebrity. So if you are ever file a defamation lawsuit, part of the trial might be just determine whether you are a public or private person in the circumstances of the case to determine which standard applies.

If you want more information about internet defamation, please check out my book,  The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. It has an entire chapter dedicated to online defamation. You can connected with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm newsletter.
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Could Amy’s Baking Company Bring Legal Action For Online Comments?

Savouring a soft Scottsdale Sunset by Nelson Minar from Flickr

Savouring a soft Scottsdale Sunset by Nelson Minar from Flickr

So social media blew up this week after Amy’s Baking Company, owned by Samy and Amy Bouzaglo, was featured on Kitchen Nightmares where Chef Ramsey walked away after he felt that the owners of the restaurant were not willing to listen to his critiques. On the show, Amy claimed that the business was hurt by “online bullies” who told lies about them.

After the show aired, the business received national attention and there were several irate posts from the owners on the restaurant’s Facebook pages – one they claim was hacked and the new one they started yesterday.  According to the Phoenix Business Journal, one of the owners’ posts stated they were keeping track of who was commenting and that they “will be pursuing action against you legaly, and against reddit and yelp, for this plot you have come together on. you are all just punks.”

Well, what if Samy and Amy wanted to pursue legal action against people who left comments on their Facebook page, Yelp, or Reddit? What would they claim – infliction of emotional distress? Defamation? For the most part, sharing your opinion is protected by the First Amendment. Yelp and Reddit simply provide forums for others to share but they don’t control the content that is posted, so there’s probably not much they could do in regards to those sites themselves.

What about defamation? In Arizona, defamation requires a false statement about the plaintiff, communicated to a third party, that hurts the plaintiff’s reputation. If Samy and Amy filed defamation claims against anyone who created a post about them or their restaurant, the defendants have three main ways to defend themselves.

Defense #1: There’s no defamation if the statement was true.
If you didn’t tell a lie, there can be no defamation. If you make a statement that only contains your opinion and you told the truth about your thoughts and feelings, there can be no defamation.

Defense #2: The only part of the statement that was false was insignificant.
If the only part of your statement that was false was insignificant, there’s no defamation. For instance, if you write a bad review for a restaurant because you didn’t like their XYZ burger but it turns out you ordered the RST burger, that would be a false statement. If the only thing that wasn’t accurate was the name of the item you ordered, but your review of it was true to your experience, that misstatement would be so minor that it wouldn’t qualify as defamation. The part that was the lie likely didn’t hurt the plaintiff’s reputation.

Defense #3: There was no reputational damage.
This is my favorite of the defamation defenses. Essentially this defense says the plaintiff’s reputation is so bad that there’s nothing you could say that would make it worse. This is a very high bar to clear. I suspect you’d have to make a false statement about a modern day Hitler to have a reputation that’s this bad. In most cases, a person can have a really bad reputation but you could make it worse if you told a lie about them and said they kick puppies or molest children.

According to one of Amy’s Baking Company’s Facebook pages, they will be having a grand re-opening on May 21st. It will be interesting to see the reviews from the people who visit the restaurant that night.

If you suspect you’ve been the target of defamation, please contact an attorney in your community. If you want more information about online defamation and the defamation defenses, please check out my book, The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed.

You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm newsletter.
You can connect with me on TwitterGoogle+FacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

Can I Publish an Email in a Blog Post?

Letter of Intent by Nick Ares, Ruth Carter, Carter Law Firm

Letter of Intent by Nick Ares

My friend in California recently contacted me and said that he received an email from a professional association he belong to and that he wanted to share it in a blog post along with his response. As an Arizona attorney, I can’t provide legal advice to California clients, but it made me think about what potential legal repercussions I could face if I wanted to publish an email in a blog.

Defamation usually involves making a false statement about a person or entity to a third party that damages their reputation. Publishing a blog post is definitely a communication to a third party, but there’s no false statement if you publish the email as it was written and if your response contains your true reaction to the message.

Public Disclosure of Private Facts
Public disclosure of private facts is an invasion of privacy claim where you tell the truth about a person but you release information that a reasonable person would expect you to keep confidential and they would be highly offended if you shared it. This is the type of claim you could face if you break up with your significant other and release the sex tape you made during your relationship.

In terms of publishing an email I received, I’d review the message and the association’s rules to see if communications need to be regarded as confidential. If not, I probably wouldn’t hesitate to republish it in a blog because there’s probably nothing in it that would be high offensive to share with others.

False Light
False light is a claim where you’re accused to telling the truth about someone but you manipulate it in a way that suggests something that is false. If I were going to republish an email, I’d probably publish the entire message to avoid being accused to manipulating the message to make the person look worse than they are.

These legal claims are all state law claims. If I publish an email written to me by a person or on behalf of an organization and they get pissed at me, they’re going to sue me where they live. I’d have to check the exact verbiage of these laws in that state, not just my home state. I prefer  to not set myself up to be sued across the country and have to go there to defend myself.

EDIT: My lawyer friend reminded me of one more claim you have to think about if you’re going to publish an email in a blog post: Copyright Infringement.
The person who wrote the email likely has copyright rights in their verbiage, include the right to decide where it’s reproduced and displayed. Most people don’t register their copyrights with the U.S. Copyright Office, so if you wait three months to publish your blog post, they can only come after you for their actual damages, which will probably be lower than statutory damages. In some cases, they could still get a decent settlement.

And as always, if you’re going to push the envelope with your blog posts, it’s easier and cheaper to consult a lawyer (like me!) in advance than to have to hire one after you’ve been sued and you have to defend yourself.

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8 Questions to Ask Before Posting a Blog

No I'm Blogging This by Andre Charland

No I'm Blogging This by Andre Charland

I taught a class this week at Gangplank, an awesome collaborative co-working space in Chandler, on some of the legalities of blogging. It was part of Gangplank Academy. As I was going through my notes in preparation of this class, it occurred to me that there are some critical questions every blogger should ask themselves before publishing a new blog post.

1. Is all the information in your blog verifiable?

2. Is every statement that isn’t verifiable indisputable?
Statements like “My knee hurts like it’s going to rain tomorrow” and “My favorite color is blue” may not be verifiable, but there’s no one who can say those statements aren’t true.

3. Do you accuse anyone of committing a crime?
It’s one thing to say, “My neighbor gives me the creeps,” but you might get sued if you say, “In my opinion, my neighbor’s a pedophile.”

4. Are you sharing any information that you learned in confidence?
When you break up with your partner, don’t write a blog post sharing all the personal information you learned during the relationship like their weird fetishes and habits.

5. Are any of your statements misrepresentations or half-truths?

6. Do any of your statements insinuate anything that isn’t true?
If you write a blog about how you don’t like seeing drug users in the park and you include a photo of a person lying in the grass with their eyes closed, they may be unhappy and sue you if they’re not a drug user but were only taking a nap.

7. Is all your information public? Are you writing about a topic where your subject might have an expectation of privacy?
Your neighbor has no expectation of privacy in how he looks naked if you saw him at a public nude beach. He does if you had to creep up to his house and peer through the cracks in his closed blinds to see him.

8. Is all your information from reputable sources?
If you copy or repeat someone’s defamatory statement, even if you didn’t know it was false, you might get sued for defamation.

I love bloggers who push the envelope and sometimes it’s hard to know when you’re crossing the line. When in doubt, consult a lawyer who is a media expert and always follow my rule: “Never put anything online that you wouldn’t put on the front page of the newspaper.”