James Woods Demands Court Order To ID Twitter User Who Called Him A “Cocaine Addict”

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.”

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Aaron Morris
Morris & Stone, LLP

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View Aaron Morris, Trial Attorney and Partner at Morris & Stone, with emphasis on Free Speech and Defamation Law.

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