Since the advent of social media, people have been discovering that free speech does indeed have its limits. Not only can what you say on Twitter get you fired, it can also get you sued for libel.
Case in point: the suit against Courtney Love for alleging via Twitter that her former counsel had been bought off. While this is certainly not the first Twitter defamation case, according to the Hollywood Reporter, Love’s attorneys argued the case should be dismissed “because of the hyperbole and exaggeration associated with the Internet.” The judge disagreed and has left it for a jury to decide whether or not Love is guilty of defamation.
According to Gigaom, this case could be the one to establish precedent for what can and can’t be said on Twitter. Here’s the thing, people try to act like the Internet is some brave new world where media law must be redefined. However, libel is well defined as a written or printed method of defamation that causes damage to someone’s professional reputation.
Unlike most cases where the burden of proof is on the plaintiff, when it comes to libel cases involving public or prominent figures, the burden of proof is on the defendant. And as J-school media law professors drilled into our heads, truth is the ultimate defense against libel. There have been cases such as Hustler v Falwell, wherein the defendant won by proving that no one could possibly believe the ridiculous parody.
This is indeed the tack Love’s attorney’s seem to be taking with regard to this case. Unfortunately, if the plaintiff can prove that Love published the statement in malice, without permission, that the statement was about the plaintiff and that there was reputational damage, the plaintiff may well win.
Twitter and other social networks may prefer to take a neutral approach with regard to free speech but that doesn’t mean the law doesn’t apply to social media. In the end, the wild-west of the internet may well be tamed by the rule of law.
Image credit: KatjusaC