Actor James Woods says a Twitter user who called him a “cocaine addict” has no right to demand anonymity.
Sourced through Scoop.it from: www.buzzfeed.com
The James Woods case presents a good illustration of the legal process and certain constitutional rights.
Someone on Twitter, using the pseudonym “Abe List” or AL for short, got into it with Woods, and let fly with a series of put-downs, referring to Woods as a Joke, clown-boy and scum. Counsel for Woods understood defamation law well enough to know that those claims are not offered as verifiable facts, and therefore cannot be defamatory.
But AL also called Woods a “cocaine addict”, and that is where his counsel drew the line. They filed what is called a DOE action, suing an unknown defendant for defamation. (Here is the actual complaint.) Once a DOE action is filed, the plaintiff can then subpoena the records (here, from Twitter) to determine the identity of the anonymous poster.
Here’s where things get interesting.
What many do not realize is that someone posting comments on the Internet has a constitutional right to remain anonymous. It hearkens back to the days of “pamphleteering”, when those disagreeing with the government would produce and distribute anonymous pamphlets. If the government could require that the identity of protesters be known, it could intimidate critics into silence.
Because of this constitutional right, if someone wishes to remain anonymous, they can oppose the motion anonymously, forcing the plaintiff to make a sufficient showing that the speech is defamatory, and therefore not entitled to protection.
That is just what occurred here. AL has gone to court and challenged Woods’ right to discover his identity.
“How do you appear anonymously in a court proceeding?”, you ask. It’s easy. You retain counsel, usually Morris & Stone, who moves to quash the subpoena on behalf of the person, using the pseudonym. The identity of the person is never revealed. (In a couple of cases, we have seen other counsel attempt this procedure, only to make the effort pointless when they accidentally identify their client in correspondence.)
I have no way of knowing if the author of the article got this particular part right, but Woods’ counsel is quoted as saying that the motion should be denied, because “AL has not proved the sort of extraordinary circumstances required to remain anonymous.” The circumstances are not at all extraordinary. Since it is a constitutional right, the default is that the person can remain anonymous, and it is the plaintiff that must show otherwise.
Counsel for Woods is also going to have problems with the fact that the statement does not appear to be offered as a verifiable fact. Calling a person a cocaine addict appears at first blush to be a pretty black or white assertion, easily refuted. But in defamation, context is everything. In the context of “AL” attacking Woods, there is no reason to believe that AL was offering the statement as an assertion of fact, or that he possessed any personal knowledge of Woods that would permit him to make that claim. It appears to just be hyperbole, like calling someone “insane”. This reality will impact whether or not the court orders Twitter to reveal the identity of AL. Since Woods is a public figure, he needs to show AL spoke with malice, but whether AL spoke with malice is only relevant if the statement is subject to a defamatory interpretation in the first place.
[Update 12/3/2015] As anticipated, Woods’ efforts to obtain the identity of AL have hit a roadblock. Counsel for AL, perhaps after reading this article, argued that “if the court finds that the statement is a ‘mere rhetorical insult,’ then malice is irrelevant and defendant prevails.” The court agreed that Woods is not entitled to discovery as to malice at this stage. The anti-SLAPP motion is limited to whether the statement was a provable fact or a “figurative rhetorical insult.”
We are seeing more and more Twitter defamation cases. Many have the false impression that they can say anything on the Internet, and for some strange reason, that sense multiplies while creating a Twitter post. Perhaps because so few words are used, the person thinks they can’t get into much trouble.
In this case, New Zealand cricket player Chris Cairns sued Lalit Modi, the commissioner of the Indian Premier League, after Modi posted a 24-word tweet, stating that Cairns had “been sacked from an Indian Cricket League team (Chandigarh Lions) because of match-fixing”. Cairns had stated that he quit due to knee problems from a charity walk in 2008.
Cairns testified that the comment had destroyed him in the cricketing community, and the court agreed, awarding him £90,000 in damages. That equals 143,442 in U.S. dollars, or about $5,977 per word.
Watch what you tweet.
I recently reported on a Twitter defamation case in Australia, and how strange things can get without a law the Communications Decency Act. Now comes a case out of India.
India has a police unit called the Cyber Crime Investigation Cell (CCIC). Although I don’t want to see defamation criminalized, because that then gives the government the power to silence unpopular speech, I do admit the thought of an agency you could turn these things over to is slightly appealing.
In the case in India, the CCIC is investigating a complaint filed by actor Pooja Bedi against an anonymous Twitterer (Tweeter?, One who Tweets?), for allegedly defaming her on Twitter. According to Bedi’s complaint to the cyber crime unit, someone has been trying to tarnish her image on Twitter. Bedi has also alleged someone was threatening violence and writing ill about her. “These things are serious in nature and need to be investigated,” said Bedi in her complaint.
However Bedi said after the police complaint was filed, the accused deleted her account and changed her Twitter ID to @missbollyB, even apologizing to Bedi through her posts. Cyber crime cell officers said they had registered a case of defamation based on Bedi’s complaint. The police have sent a request to US authorities to provide information necessary for the probe.
I have frequently written here on the pros and cons of the Communications Decency Act (“CDA”). Without it, no website could permit comments, but by the same token it allows unscrupulous website operators to encourage defamatory postings, and then use those postings to extort payments from the victims.
Because of the latter reality, many have suggested to me that they would like to see the CDA abolished. But a case out of Australia demonstrates just how ridiculous things get without the CDA.
Those Australians are people of few words, so I had to read a number of news accounts to piece together what had occurred. A blogger by the name of Marieke Hardy apparently picked up an anonymous on-line bully. For undisclosed reasons, Hardy decided that she had determined the identity of her mystery bully, so she posted the following comment on Twitter:
“I name and shame my ‘anonymous’ internet bully. Liberating business! Join me.”
The “tweet” then provided a link back to her blog, and there on the blog she identified Joshua Meggitt as the bully. Problem was, Meggitt was not the bully.
Meggitt sued for defamation. Hardy settled with him, allegedly for around $15,000. But Meggitt wants more. Meggitt is suing Twitter for defamation for the tweet by Hardy.
Do you see how absurd things quickly become without the CDA? If Twitter is responsible for every comment, then to avoid defamation it would have to put a delay on all comments, and hire thousands of employees to review the comments. As each comment passed in front of the reviewer, he or she would need to make a quick decision about whether that comment could possible be defamatory, and only then clear it for publication.
I want you to imagine that scenario. You are one of the Twitter reviewers. Thankfully Twitter limits each tweet to 140 characters, so there is not much to review, but you must apply your best judgment to each comment to see if anyone could be offended. So up pops the following:
“That J-Lo. She be crazy.”
Do you hit the approve or disapprove button? Was the “crazy” comment meant in a good or bad sense? Even if the person making the comment meant only that the singer Jennifer Lopez is crazy good, if you approve the comment then every person in the world who goes by the name J-Lo could potentially sue for defamation, claiming that the post accuses them of having mental problems.
But the dispute between Hardy and Meggitt takes the scenario to an even more absurd level. Applying those facts to out hypothetical, what you really received was:
“That J-Lo. She be crazy. http://tinyurl.com/48y28m7″
What do you do with THAT?! Twitter requires you to review and approve or deny 120 tweets per hour. To keep your job you only have less than 30 seconds to make a decision. You quickly click on the link to see why J-Lo is crazy, and you are confronted with a four and a half minute video! Do you have to watch the entire video to make sure it contains nothing defamatory? You don’t have time for that. REJECTED!
And here, all the tweeter wanted to do was pass along a great video by J-Lo.
Under the best possible circumstances, Twitter would be relegated to approving only the most milk toast comments with no possible defamatory implication. In reality though, Twitter could not possibly exist if it could be held liable for every comment posted.
To all of you who just responded with a resounding, “Who cares about Twitter?”, that’s not really the point. I’m talking big picture here.
It will be very interesting to see how the courts in Australia handle this case.
Even when a lawsuit is weak on merit it sometimes achieves its purpose. I will have no part in filing a meritless lawsuit, but sometimes it is appropriate to push the envelope.
Take the case of Tony La Russa, famous baseball manager. Like so many other well known people, someone hijacked his name and image on Twitter, leading many “followers” to believe that the musings coming from this Twitterer (Twitterite?) were coming from the real deal. La Russa tried to persuade Twitter to intervene and remove the fake identity, but sure as there is a fail whale, the fine folks at Twitter refused to cooperate.
La Russa filed suit and got a lot of grief for doing so, with most legal experts citing the Communications Decency Act (CDA) as a barrier to the suit. But, obviously, this is not a typical CDA situation. Yes, La Russa was seeking to hold Twitter liable for the “postings” of third parties, and that is classic CDA material. But there are some interesting side issues. For example, a website cannot encourage visitors to post copyrighted e-books for download and then expect to escape liability under the CDA because third parties are the ones actually posting the books. In that case, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act would trump the CDA. Like a copyright, people have a pecuniary interest in there own identities. Should Twitter be permitted to assist in those that would steal that identity?
The La Russa case will not be providing any answers to this question, because it has been withdrawn, but not before Twitter deleted the offending account. Most are reporting this story as a victory for Twitter, but didn’t La Russa get exactly what he asked for in the first place?
For more on this story, go here.