Yet another European media scandal is making defamation headlines. This time, the scandal involves television program Newsnight, Tory politician Lord McAlpine and accusations of pedophilia. The story “broke” on Twitter – and now parliamentarians are calling for stronger online libel laws. Specifically, authorities want to make clear that Twitter defamation is the same as libel in a newspaper.
The Scandal: Politicians, Pedophilia and Resignations
In one of the biggest media blunders of the decade, A recent Newsnight piece mistakenly implicated Lord McAlpine of molesting a teenage orphan, Steven Messham, nearly 20 years ago. When the story broke, McAlpine’s reputation immediately plummeted. People were shocked! Outraged!
After a little investigating, the truth was revealed: Messham was mistaken. It wasn’t McAlpine who’d abused him years earlier. Presumably embarrassed by the incident, George Entwistle, the Director General of the BBC, resigned.
Include Social Media In Defamation Reform Efforts!
Justice Secretary Chris Grayling was outspoken about the Twitter defamation implications of the McAlpine scandal. In a statement, the parliamentarian urged lawmakers to punish Facebook and Twitter defamation as harshly as newspaper libel.
“At the moment you have got this situation where newspapers are rightly constrained by libel and defamation laws,” began Grayling, “but people are linking to the stories through the Internet and spreading vile and heinous lies about people, who have no right of redress.” He continued, “We are going to have to bring Facebook and Twitter under the same laws as libels committed by newspapers or television channels.”
In his address, Grayling also urged Lord Justice Leveson to touch on the issue of Facebook and Twitter defamation in his scheduled December report on libel reform.
Plaintiff Friendly Defamation Laws In The UK
The United Kingdom has always been known as “the” place to file a libel lawsuit. Their defamation statutes, like many commonwealth countries, are amongst the most plaintiff-friendly in the world. Why is that? Well, to put it bluntly, reputation is often tantamount to free speech in the Queen’s lands.
Unlike defamation laws in the United States, plaintiff’s, for the most part, don’t have to prove actual malice. Meaning, they don’t have to provide evidence that demonstrates the plaintiff’s true impetuous was to harm the defendant. Moreover, the way in which current UK defamation laws are written makes it very easy for defendants to claim that they were in some way harmed by the material in question.
To learn more about slander and libel laws from around the world, visit the International Defamation Law Database. If you need a defamation lawyer who is well-versed in international and Twitter defamation law, contact Kelly/Warner Law today.
Is there a difference between online defamation and offline defamation? Jeremy Clarkson, host of the popular television show Top Gear, seems to think so. A good-driving fanatic, Clarkson has taken to outing motorists on his Twitter account. If he catches someone doing something dangerous, he tweets their license plate number, usually with an acerbic quip.
In response to questions about his Twitter activity, Clarkson said, “It [Twitter] has no actual use, but it’s a libel free world out there in the electronoshphere.”
While some may secretly appreciate the public shaming of bad drivers (hey, they can be unsafe), Clarkson could run into online defamation trouble if he continues. Why? Because libel laws do apply to online activity.
Yes, in certain jurisdictions, there are different rules for online and offline libel, but I don’t believe there is a single jurisdiction in the world that says: “If it was done online, it’s not defamation.”
If Clarkson were in the United States, and tweeted the license plate of a car that did break the law, he’d probably win that online defamation lawsuit. The plaintiff in this hypothetical situation would have to prove they didn’t break the law. If the plaintiff, however, succeeded in doing so, and the tweets somehow harmed the plaintiff, Clarkson could be brought up on libel charges.
But the more likely scenario is a typo. What happens if Clarkson accidentally tweets out the wrong license plate? He could be sued for online defamation.
So, the next time you’re thinking about letting loose on Twitter, remember you’re not immune from being sued for defamation. Even if you delete it quickly, if it’s seen, and your adversary manages to capture the content, you could find yourself inside a courtroom, fighting Internet libel charges..
Tweet smartly! And if you find yourself in need of an online Twitter defamation lawyer, get in touch.
Twitter attorneys are warmed up and ready to spar over a New York judge’s decision on whether or not prosecutors have the right to subpoena the social media company for Malcolm Harris’ user account information. An Occupy Wall Street protester, Malcolm Harris was accused of disturbing the peace on October 1, 2011. Judge Matthew A Sciarrino, Jr. – a self-styled “social media expert” (who was disciplined in 2009 for trying to “friend” lawyers on Facebook) – ruled that neither the Twitter account holder nor the social media service could quash a subpoena issued by the DA’s office. Those in support of Harris argue that Sciarrino’s decision flies in the face of established United States’ legal traditions regarding anonymous free speech.
Facts of the Case
According to prosecutors, On October 1, 2011, Malcolm Harris – Twitter handle @destructuremal – violated the law by disrupting traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge. As a result, Harris is being brought up on charges. The District Attorney’s office believes Malcolm’s tweets – both public and deleted – are necessary to mount of a proper defense.
After receiving the subpoena on January 26, 2012, Twitter notified Mr. Harris on January 30, 2012 of the request. Harris informed Twitter representatives that he planned to file a motion to quash the subpoena; the social media network indicated they would not comply with the request until the court ruled on Harris’ motion.
Harris’ Attempt To Get The Subpoena Quashed Denied
In April of this year, Judge Matthew A. Sciarrino, Jr. ruled on Harris’ motion. While Sciarrino acquiesced that NY courts have yet to rule whether a criminal defendant can quash a subpoena served to a social network, he evoked a 1976 SCOTUS decision (United States v. Miller) which established that bank records are the property of a bank and that an account holder can’t assert ownership or possession over a bank’s records.
Sciarrino also cited the second circuit court decision in United States v. Lifshitz (2004) which concluded that “individuals do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in Internet postings or e-mails that have reached their recipients.” To back-up this point, Sciarrino highlighted the fact that Twitter’s own Terms of Service read:
By submitting, posting or displaying Content on or through the Services, you grant us a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such Content in any and all media or distribution methods (now known or later developed)
As such, Sciarrino argued that by agreeing to the terms of service, users are aware that their words will be “quickly broadcast…around the world,” and therefore should have no expectation of twitter privacy if their account is set to public. He pounded home his point by saying:
Every single time the defendant used Twitter’s services the defendant was granting a license for Twitter to use, display and distribute the defendant’s Tweets to anyone and for any purpose it may have. Twitter’s license to use the defendant’s Tweets means that the Tweets the defendant posted were not his. The defendant’s inability to preclude Twitter’s use of his Tweets demonstrates a lack of proprietary interests in his Tweets.
Malcolm Harris also said that his tweets had nothing to do with the disorderly conduct charge, and therefore shouldn’t be needed by the prosecutors. The judge, however, averred that the DA needed the Twitter records in order to refute the defendants anticipated defense.
After Malcolm Harris failed to get the subpoena quashed, Twitter stepped up to the plate and took their turn at bat challenging the subpoena. Sciarrino denied Twitter’s motion to quash, as well. Twitter, however, announced they would file an appeal to the ruling.
So now we wait to see what comes next in this important test case for online privacy and social media. For as the American Civil Liberties Union pointed out, “What is surprising is that the court continued to fail to grapple with one of the key issues underlying this case: do individuals give up their ability to go to court to try to protect their free speech and privacy rights when they use the Internet? [T]he answer has to be no.”
Courtney Love can’t quit Twitter — and as a result, the chaos creator has once again found herself at the center of a Twitter defamation lawsuit. This time around, Love is being sued by her former lawyer, Rhonda Holmes – and Holmes is trying to drag Frances Bean Cobain, 19, into the fracas.
A Brief History Of Courtney Love’s Twitter Defamation Woes
You’d think Love would’ve learned her lesson by now, especially since last year Courtney was forced to pay nearly half a million dollars to designer Dawn Simorangkir for tweeting that the up-and-coming stylist was a “drug-dealing madame who lost her kids over an assault and battery incident.”
The suit filed by Simorangkir was expected to be the first high-profile Twitter defamation lawsuit heard by a jury, but the parties settled our of court in the eleventh hour. Simorangkir emerged victorious and Love agreed to pay $430,000 over three years.
Courtney’s Lawyers Seek Serenity By Firing Love As A Client
Even though the Twitter battle with Simorangkir is settled, Courtney Love still has a Twitter defamation lawsuit looming. The second online libel case has to do with a 2010 interview that Love gave to a website.
While chatting with a reporter, Love accused lawyer Holmes (who was helping Courtney with some estate issues) of “disappearing” in the middle of a lawsuit and insinuated conspiratorial activity. “I’ve been hiring and firing lawyers to help me with this,” Love began. Courtney then went on to explain her belief that Holmes had stopped returning calls since “they got to her.” Love insisted in public that Holmes “disappeared.”
Nailing her own coffin, after the interview Love tweeted, “I was f—ing devastated (sic) when Rhonda J Holmes Esq. of San Diego was bought off.”
Holmes, however, tells a different story. According to the attorney, Love allegedly became enraged when Holmes explained she would not continue representing the rocker unless Love refrained from “any and all substance abuse.” Unwilling to abide by this request, Holmes claims Love fired her, but then flip-flopped and asked the attorney to handle the case once again. Holmes insists that she denied Love’s request to be re-established as a client. When Love took her conspiracy disappearing story to the press and Twitter, Holmes decided enough was enough and filed claim alleging libel, false light, invasion of privacy and intentional interference with a prospective economic advantage.
To make matters more complicated, Pryor Cashman – the lawyer representing Love in the defamation lawsuit against Holmes – says there has been a “complete breakdown” in client communications. To put it simply, reports indicate that Cashman hasn’t seen much in the way of payment, nor has he heard a word from his client. As such, it’s likely he’s looking to be dismissed from the case. If he succeeds, Courtney may have to represent herself.
Courting Frances Bean Cobain…For A Defamation Subpoena
Courtney is not the only Cobain entangled in this Twitter defamation case. Frances Bean – the now emancipated daughter of Courtney and Kurt – has also been subpoenaed. Why subpoena Frances Bean? It probably has to do with a tweet she sent out after Courtney publicaly accused Foo Fighter, Dave Grohl, of coming on to her daughter. At the time, in defense of Dave, Frances made a public statement urging Twitter to ban her mother from the platform.
When it comes to Holmes’ Twitter defamation suit, however, France Bean doesn’t want to get involved. Bryan Freedman (who was also Dawn Simorangkir’s lawyer) has moved to have the subpoena quashed on the grounds that any information Cobain would be able to give would prove to be “inadmissible and non-discoverable character evidence regarding love.”
After all, Cobain, at the time of the incident, was living with her grandmother and aunt and was not in contact with her mother in any capacity. In other words, it’s fair to infer that Frances doesn’t want anything to do with her mother. (A probability that may be driving Courtney Love to the brink, since 19-year-old Frances was legally granted control over Nirvana’s publicity rights in 2009.)
What do you think? Will Hole rocker, Love, manage to extradite herself from this twitter defamation lawsuit? Or will this finally be the first high-profile celebrity Twitter defamation lawsuit to make it to a jury?
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These days, Twitter threats are as commonplace as the Internet itself! And it’s an odd phenomenon too, since, unlike in most blog comment sections, many people use their real identities on the 140-character social networking platform.
Perhaps Twitter’s frantic pace is to blame. After all, people do tend to tweet first and think later. And that’s all fine and well, but as an Internet lawyer, let me remind you that threatening people on Twitter can land you in some legal trouble with the FBI – and who needs them banging down their door?
Twitter Threats: Legal or Illegal?
Here’s the deal: any credible threat made by one person to another is illegal. And all it takes to trigger an FBI investigation is the fear of the person being threatened. For example, let’s say you’re having a back-and-forth Twitter war with a friend, it gets heated, and you tweet, “I’m going to kill you!” If your friend knows that you’re simply riled up, they’ll probably disregard it and keep on twitter-sparing without a second thought. However, if they really wanted to teach you a lesson, they could contact the authorities, claim genuine fear, and that’s all the FBI needs to hear to start looking into the situation.
Yep, it’s that simple.
Celebrities and Twitter Threats
Last month, two notable celebrity twitter threats hit the news. The first: Kyle Williams, punt returner for the San Francisco 49ers; the second: Taylor Armstrong of Real Housewives fame. Williams’ twitter threats were a result of his two fumbles that arguably cost his team a chance at the big ring; an upcoming book signing in New Jersey prompted the threat against Armstrong (a controversial figure in reality television, I’ve learned).
When the tweets threatening Williams hit the Net, various outlets called for an investigation into the people who let the athlete have it online; Armstrong, at the urging of her online followers and friends, contacted the police immediately after getting a couple of direct tweets indicating that she and her daughter would be kidnapped and harmed if she went through with a book signing in New Jersey.
As of the time of this writing, little has been reported about the Williams’ threateners; but authorities did report that Armstrong’s Twitter threats were the musings of a “disturbed” teenager – who will now, most likely, end up on some watch list.
Government Officials and Terrorist Twitter Threats
If you think the authorities takes threats against private citizens and celebrities seriously, try threatening the President or any other public official – the FBI will be on your doorstep quicker than a thirteen year old girl at a Justin Bieber concert.
Codified by Title 18, Section 871 of the United States Code, threatening the life of the President is a felony. And the statue is often applied to any elected member of the government.
And learn from the plight of of Paul Chambers; just your average guy, who was arrested, questioned, fined $1,500 and lost his job, all because he tweeted out an angry missive after finding out his plane was delayed.
What To Do If You’ve Been Threatened on Twitter
If you’ve been threatened on Twitter, don’t engage in an online battle with your opponent. The less contact you have with them, the better. Instead, make a hard-copy of the threat. Then, be sure to block that person on your Twitter account. Report the incident to Twitter and provide the evidence.
If you’re genuinely scared, contact the authorities. If possible, your local FBI office is the best place, but your area police will point you in the right direction.
So, what is the lesson in all this? Think before you tweet – because if you don’t, and get a little too feisty with your online language, you may just answer the door one day to find FBI agents at your door. Authorities take Twitter threats very seriously; do yourself a favor and pull back before you go too far.
Aaron Kelly is an Internet lawyer who has litigated many Twitter-related cases. If you need a Twitter lawyer, give the Kelly Law Firm a call, Skype or shoot an email over – we’re here to help with all your online legal issue needs. (And yes, we’ve also helped those who have been accused of making online threats using various online legal and free speech statutes.)
International online defamation is one of the technology law issues d’jour. In the United Kingdom, Parliamentarians are battling it out over a new statute; Canada’s high court recently made the maple-leaf country’s first ruling on the liability of hyperlinks; and here in the United States, yet another Twitter libel lawsuit was withdrawn before it got to trial.
Hyperlinks Not Defamatory In Canada
Crookes v. Newton
After 15 years of widespread Internet use, the Supreme Court of Canada released a judgment on Crookes v. Newton, the country’s first decision on hyperlinking. At the crux of the case was Canada’s “publication rule” as it relates to defamation. Traditionally, the law of Canada’s land faulted any individual or entity that repeated or published defamatory content. In Crookes v. Newton, judges were asked to decide if placing a hyperlink to libelous information on a blog, website or social media platform constituted “publication.”
Unlike many defamation lawsuits, the facts of Crookes v. Newton were surprisingly straight forward: Jon Newton operated a multi-topic blog out of British Columbia. His website contained “deep” and “shallow” links to information about Wayne Crookes – information Crookes claims is false. Looking to clear his good name, Crookes sued Newton for defamation, arguing that the links constituted publication.
Court Says Merely Linking To Defamatory Content Isn’t Defamatory In It Of Itself
After much deliberation, however, Canada’s high court ruled that a strict “application of the publication rule [sic] is like trying to fit a square archaic peg into a hexagonal hole of modernity.” The majority judges agreed that a “deep” or “shallow” link, in it of itself, does not constitute publication and is analogous to a foot- or end-note. That being said, the ruling panel also made it clear that links near or around accusatory text “may still be considered publication and therefore defamatory” – not because of the reference link, but because of the surrounding context. In other words, in the court’s mind, a link by itself is A-OK, but if you write a summary or commentary about the information in the link, then you’re still on the defamation hook.
While the court’s decision is ostensibly forward thinking, they did leave a lot of bytes on the bench for later consideration, and pointedly mentioned that the ruling did not account for “newer” technologies, like automatic hyperlinking.
International Online Defamation: UK Parliament Debating New Online Libel Bill
New UK Defamation Law
Over in the United Kingdom, things are also heating up on the online defamation front. Now that parliament has successfully changed the law allowing Will and Kate’s first-born spawn — even if it’s a female — to rule, they’ve turned their attention to more pertinent issues, like the rights of UK citizens when it comes to free speech and slander.
The proposed defamation act primarily focuses on issues related to libel tourism, but the bill is also a bold attempt to marry Internet and print publishing standards.
Notice and Take-Down Procedure
The “notice and take-down procedures” outlined in the UK’s draft defamation bill may result in a worldwide ripple effect. If approved, website operators in the UK, upon receiving a complaint about possibly defamatory material on their site, will be required to publish the objection alongside the original article, post or comment. If the material in question was posted by an anonymous user, editors will be required to remove the copy in question, unless the original poster agrees to reveal their identity.
What About Whistle-Blowers?
You’re not alone if you just thought, “Hey wait a minute! What about whistle-blowers!?” Parliamentarians thought of that too, and did include an exception for cases where there is “an overriding public interest in publication.”
In the next breath, however, pro-bill legislators published a statement saying that they hope to promote “a culture shift towards a general recognition that unidentified postings are not to be trusted as true, reliable of trustworthy.” (One has to wonder if the societal push to associate anonymity with prevarication will have a chilling effect on the emerging online whistle blowing community, which has only recently begun to find its legs.)
International Defamation Laws: Oregon’s Twibel Lawsuit Denied
Meanwhile, on this side of the pond, Internet defamation lawyers were once again disappointed to hear that another possible Twitter libel case was dismissed before it reached the trial stage, thereby eliminating an opportunity to establish substantial “twibel” legal precedence.
Doctor v. Blogger Online Defamation Lawsuit
The cyberlibel case that “almost was” involved Oregon-based Dr. Jerry Darm and blogger Tiffany Craig.
The tussle began when Craig, after hearing one of Darm’s “ubiquitous” advertisements for his cosmetic procedure medical spa, Aesthetic Medicine, posted a negative missive about him on her blog. On her website, CriminallyVulgar.com, Craig pondered how consumers’ could research the records of doctors, like Darm, who advertise. Craig reasoned that if the average patient relies on ads, how can one follow up to determine the accuracy of said endorsements?
Craig did some digging and shinned a social media light on some potentially damaging information about the doctor. Specifically, Craig discovered Darm had been disciplined by several state medical boards for “inappropriate boundary violations” with female patients. If you believe the online chatter, Darm allegedly offered to provide off-hours vein surgery in exchange for sex. Presumably eager to share the fruits of her sleuthing, Craig tweeted about her Dr. Darm discoveries.
And Darm promptly filed a $1 million dollar online defamation lawsuit.
It was up to Judge Jerome LaBarre to decide if the case was fit for trial. Current U.S. defamation laws require that LaBarre determine if 1) Craig’s comments were made in a public forum, and 2) whether the subject matter of the allegedly defamatory material was a matter of public interest. If the judge determined that the answer to those two questions was “yes,” then there would be grounds for a free-speech defense.
LaBarre ruled that “any website that allows the posting of comments without a fee or some sort of admission process” is a “public forum.” He also decided that health is a matter of public concern. During the hearing, Craig’s lawyer, Linda Williams, moved for the case to be dismissed using anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) regulations. Thomas McDermott, Darm’s lawyer, objected to Craig’s facility as a medical watchdog since she had never been a patient of his client.
Plaintiff Withdrew Case
A second hearing was set for Oct. 20th and McDermott was expected to argue age-old defamation standards in a 21st century context. But on Friday, Oct. 14, 2011, Darm dismissed the charges against Craig.
And that was that. Yet another social media defamation lawsuit cut short before it got good.
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