For the first time ever in the U.S., a tweet has led to a libel trial (http://tinyurl.com/kj37y4m ). Singer-actress Courtney Love is being sued by her former lawyer Rhonda Holmes for claiming in a June 2010 tweet Holmes was “bought off” when she refused to help Love in a fraud case.
The L.A. Superior Court trial could set a landmark precedent in how social media posts are treated under libel law. The precedent could affect everyone on social media and everyone ever targeted in the posts there.
Every time you post something to Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, you are in the publishing business. In my view, there is no justifiable reason for anyone to avoid liability simply because it is the Internet. If you publish something that is false that harms someone (the definition of libel), what difference does it make where you did it? A 1996 federal law protects the Internet provider (Twitter) from any liability because they are not the ones writing the post.
Love, by the way, has been sued before over a tweet. She ended the case with a fashion designer before the trial started with a $430,000 settlement.
Regardless of how the trial ends, keep the following in mind:
You are entitled to any opinion you wish, without legal reprisal, but make sure the opinion is not an accusation or claims “facts” that are not true. The first defense against libel will never change — the truth.
The law aside, also consider the moral implications of your posts. Measure your post against this standard: Would it be fair if someone did this to me?
Probably better advice than you’d get from Courtney.
The writer is a former TV news anchor who owns a public communications business and is an adjunct media professor at the College of St. Rose.
In one respect, it does not matter if New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had direct knowledge of the plan to cause a four-day traffic jam in Fort Lee, NJ. The bizarre act was a by-product of a vindictive culture he created.
It was not the act of a single person. It involved the participation of several people in Christie’s inner circle. No one out of the blue thinks shutting down traffic to an entire city is a clever idea. You only get to that point by embracing a culture obsessed with harming anyone who opposes you and putting the pursuit of power ahead of any public interest. Why would any political leader have such people in his/her inner circle, unless the leader believed in the same culture?
Governors and other top elected officials don’t live in the real world. They are too often (not true in all cases) surrounded by fanny-kissing aides, consultants and lobbyists whose careers depend on staying in the good graces of the chief executive. As Peggy Noonan points out in her insightful Wall Street Journal article, political operatives often have “an ethos of wise-guy toughness…and they often try to out-tough each other. That’s how dirty tricks happen.”
The worst part of “Bridgegate” is not the traffic jam. It’s the realization Christie’s “get them” approach is not the exception in American politics, it’s the rule. Retaliation is just rarely done in such a stupid and clumsy way. This culture is everywhere. Even my own town supervisor once threatened to fine me for not having a special use permit to work from home on my computer when I was on the Town Board (fortunately, that move backfired).
This “get them” culture exists because it works. It keeps many undeserving people in power and discourages many of the best and brightest from entering the fray. This will not change until voters start throwing the people out of office who engage in it. And encourage and support more of their true leaders to step forward.
Only then will we have a better democracy….and maybe less traffic.
The writer is a former elected official and former senior aide in the NY State Legislature.