If ever there were a lesson to be learned from Courtney Love, it's this: be careful what you tweet. She's currently on the wrong end of a Twitter libel (aka "twibel") lawsuit, and the case could truly go either way.
Granted, it's not unheard of for celebrities to rattle off inflammatory tweets. It's those spotlight grabs that sell magazines and generate clicks for gossip sites. But what's striking about the Courtney Love twibel case is that it could forever change the legal implications for social media sites.
Here's what you need to know about the trial and what the lawsuit means for small-business owners who don't have advertising injury insurance (included in a General Liability Insurance policy).
For more on how advertising injury can impact a small business, check out the post “What Is Advertising Injury and How Does it Affect Social Media Marketing?”
Gordon & Holmes v. Love: The Tweet Heard Round the World
Courtney Love, famous for her devil-may-care attitude, rock stardom, and marriage to Kurt Cobain, scribed a tweet in 2010 that read, "I was f------ devestated [sic] when Rhonda J. Holmes esq. of san diego was bought off @FairNewsSpears perhaps you can get a quote."
Love was talking about Rhonda Holmes, an attorney she hired to help her win a fraud case against those handling Kurt Cobain's estate. Though Love claims Holmes failed to perform her work, the lawyer maintains that she was fired. But once Love accused Holmes of bribery, the lawyer fought back by suing the celebrity for defamation.
Though this isn't the first lawsuit arising over libel on Twitter, the dispute has the power to shift how the courts may handle future twibel claims. Love's attorneys attempted to have the case dismissed, arguing that the tweet and subsequent press interview weren't defamatory because the public can discern the hyperbolic nature of the statement and content generally posted on the Internet. They argued that reasonable readers viewing what Love had tweeted would interpret the tweet the same as they would if they read it on a gossip site. Lastly, the attorneys said that the tweet didn't name the law firm, which hinders the plaintiff's claim that the remark was defamatory.
But the judge didn't agree. Instead, Judge Michael Johnson opined the issue was triable because the comment wasn't a typical tweet. As for not identifying the law firm, the judge also thought that argument was flawed. After all, the standard of libel law is that a statement must be "of and concerning" a plaintiff. And given the implication of Love's tweet, that is enough to constitute a case.
Now it's up to the jury to decide whether libelous tweets can lead to financial damages. The trial began on January 13, 2014, and is still underway.
Understanding Libel in the Age of Social Media
The Gordon & Holmes v. Love case exemplifies that even in the informal world of social media, the laws of the land still apply. Though Twitter may seem like a prime venue to say what's on your mind, the lawsuit is a reminder that what you say online can be a liability – especially for a commercial entity.
Libel laws in the United States are designed to balance First Amendment free speech considerations and the public's interest in protecting reputations. And since libel is defined as a written or printed method of defamation that hurts someone's professional reputation, the law can easily be adapted to include what is written on social media sites.
Here are the key ingredients of a libel lawsuit:
- The libelous statement must be “about or concerning” the plaintiff.
- The written statement must have the power to harm plaintiff's reputation.
- The burden of proof is on the defendant in libel cases involving public or prominent figures.
- Truth is the ultimate defense against libel claims. Courtney Love could feasibly win the case if she could prove that no one could possibly believe that her lawyer took a bribe.
- Holmes, the plaintiff, could win if her attorneys can prove that Love intended to post the tweet publicly, in malice, without the plaintiff's permission, and that the comment damaged the plaintiff’s professional reputation.
Ultimately, the damages the plaintiff may be awarded will be based on the reach of the libelous tweet. To give you an idea of how expensive these claims can be, we'll look at a few examples of twibel cases that have already been tried in court.
Twibel Cases: Not as Rare as You'd Think
If this is your first time reading about Twitter libel, you may be surprised to learn that advertising injuries arising from social media comments are on the rise. The reach of these networking sites means that someone's reputation could easily be harmed if you aren't careful with your words.
Here are a few examples of previous social media libel cases:
- In 2009, Courtney Love was sued over a stream of negative tweets she published about her fashion designer, making Love the first defendant in a twibel case. The claim was settled out of court for $430,000.
- In 2009, Horizon realty sued Amanda Bonnen for $50,000 in damages. The plaintiff alleged defamation, citing Bonnen's tweet as proof: "Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon realty thinks its okay." The case is interesting because both parties are private figures. However, it was dismissed when the court decided the tweet was too vague to be legally considered libel.
- In 2011, Dr. Jerry Darm sued blogger Tiffany Craig for $1 million. Her tweet read, "[A] little bit of research into @drdarm [Dr. Darm] revealed a pretty nasty complaint filed against him for attempting to trade treatment for sex in 2001." The case was settled out of court.
- In 2012, a freelance writer was sued for more than $82,000 for tweeting about one of her clients. (Read more on the post “How Commercial General Liability Insurance Can Protect You from an $82,630 Tweet.”)
If you pull up your social media feed, you can probably find a handful of comments and status updates that are just as "damaging" as any of these examples. But when you're a small-business owner, the stakes are higher. Your access to a broader audience can increase the likelihood of a lawsuit if you post libelous content. After all, the bigger the audience, the more costly the defamation damage.
Lessons Learned: Is Your Small Business Protected from Twibel Torts?
The moral of this case is that you can't be too careful about what you post online. Social media marketing is a cost-effective way to engage with your audience, but it comes with the risk that you could potentially face a libel suit.
To protect your business, think before you type. If you are responding to another person, ask yourself if what you're typing is appropriate for a public audience. Always use your good judgment.
But since we live in a litigious age, these commonsense measures may not be enough. After all, what you consider a harmless tweet may offend the person or company you're writing about. And since hiring an attorney in the first place can cost thousands of dollars, you may benefit from carrying small business insurance to be on the safe side.
General Liability Insurance can safeguard your business from the high cost of libel suits and an array of other advertising liability torts. Think of the coverage as your social media safety net. It's not a blank check to act recklessly online, but if your business is ever tangled up in an advertising liability suit, you can rely on your policy to pay for legal defense fees, settlements or court-ordered compensation, and other related court expenses.
To learn more about advertising injuries and how to avoid these costly mistakes on social media, check out our eBook Tweet or Twibel: The Small-Business Owner's Guide to Advertising Injury.
This post is part of an ongoing series on advertising liability. Stay tuned for more on how your business can make the most of social media while avoiding advertising injury liabilities!