Courtney Love cleared of Twitter libel: what it means for the rest of us

A Los Angeles jury decided on Friday that singer Courtney Love did not defame her former attorney in a tweet, thus ending America’s first high-profile “twibel” trial. The case created buzz in Hollywood and among media lawyers because it promised to shed more light on what you can and can’t say on Twitter.

Here’s a quick overview of what happened and what it means for the emerging law of Twitter.

Courtney said ex- lawyer was “bought off”

“Twitter should ban my mother,” Love’s daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, wrote last year — and she might have a point. Love has been sued multiple times over her Twitter outbursts, including an incident in which she called a fashion designer a drug dealer and a prostitute.

Love settled that case for $430,000 but decided to fight a second Twitter lawsuit in which one of her former lawyer demanded $8 million over a tweet that read:

@noozjunkie I was fucking devestated [sic] when Rhonda J. Holmes esq. of san diego was bought off @FairNewsSpears perhaps you can get a quote.

It was the “bought off” comment that led Holmes, who Love had hired to sort out the finances of her late husband’s estate, to file a lawsuit accusing Love of harming her reputation.

During the trial, expert witnesses for Love claimed that no one saw the initial tweet, which Love deleted, except for the two people mentioned in it, and that it only came to public attention after Holmes made a legal issue of it. At trial, Love also described herself as a “computer retard” and said she believed the tweet was a private, direct message. She also claimed that she thought the message was true when she sent it.

Why did the jury clear Love?

“Did Rhonda Holmes prove by clear and convincing evidence that Courtney Love knew [the message] was false or doubted the truth of it?” was a question put to the jury. The answer was no.

And this, in a nutshell, likely explains why the jury cleared Love: Holmes couldn’t prove for a fact that Love knew the “bought off” claim was untrue, Courtney Love twitter picor even that she acted with “reckless disregard” to its truth.

It also matters that Holmes, in this situation, was what lawyers call a “limited-purpose public figure” — meaning she had to overcome a high bar by proving the “false” or “reckless” claims. If Holmes had not been a “private figure,” she would have just had to prove that Love had been careless.

This distinction between “public” and “private” applies on Twitter, just as it does everywhere else. In plain English, it means the little old lady next door will have an easier time suing you for defamation than will a celebrity. And the more famous someone is, the harder it is for them to win a defamation case.

And what about the fact only one or two people saw Love’s tweet at the time? For purposes of proving defamation, it doesn’t matter. Libel law only requires that a statement was published to a third party — it doesn’t matter if the statement was seen by one person or a million (it does matter, though, when considering what the damages should be).

Twitter truth and opinion

The Love case also raised another issue about speech on Twitter: when should statements in tweets should be considered facts, and when they should be considered just streams-of-consciousness or opinion.

The distinction is important because opinion, like truth, is a defense to defamation. As the EFF explains, putting someone on top of a list of “Top Ten Dumb Asses” is not defaming them since calling someone a “dumb ass” doesn’t amount to what the law calls a “verifiable statement.”

In the case of Twitter, some suggest that the things people say should be considered akin to internet message boards —  a place where people make strong statements that others understand are not necessarily true. As Popehat notes:

Context is relevant to that determination. California courts, in particular, have suggested that expression online is more likely to be taken as hyperbole or opinion rather than a statement of literal fact subject to defamation analysis.

In the Love case, the singer’s lawyers tried to argue that the case shouldn’t even go before a jury in the first place because Twitter statements are inherently opinion. A judge, though, rejected that argument. As a result, it’s not clear for now if tweets can — or should — get more protection than other forms of online expression.

Finally, the Love decision is significant because it comes in contrast to legal developments in the U.K., which threaten to chill the use of Twitter in that country. In October, for instance, a U.K. man agreed to pay $25,000 for retweeting a false statement, saying ““From my own experience, I am able to warn others of the dangers of retweeting,”

Love is still tweeting, by the way, through the handle @courtney.