Is All Fair in Love and Social Media War?

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by Matt Galchick, intern

Twibel copyIf a tweet gets posted and deleted before anyone gets a chance to read it, did it even exist? According to a Los Angeles jury, the answer is “No.” In what is being considered a ground breaking case by many, a forensics team in the first ever “Twibel” (Twitter libel) case spent over 300 hours looking for a tweet sent by singer Courtney Love about her former attorney Rhonda J. Holmes. Holmes was suing the former Mrs. Cobain, claiming that a tweet sent by Love was defaming her character. When it was all said and done, the jury did not believe that the disappearing tweet caused enough commotion to warrant a label of libel.

This was the first case of its kind and became an interesting topic to many in the legal community. In an article from NBCNews.com, Ellyn Angelotti, a social media law professor at the Poynter Institute in Florida had this to say: “Because in a traditional analysis of defamation, the tweet is a published statement to a third party of and concerning another person, I am surprised. The only part I was not sure about (was) how they could prove that it damaged the lawyer’s reputation. I know a lot of people said it could be seen as an opinion. And maybe the decision hinged on that the lawyer did not prove there was sufficient harm to her reputation.”

But where do we draw the line between freedom of speech, stating an opinion and defamation of character? I like to compare social media to shooting a rifle. It can be fun and exciting (“OMG, I got a retweet from John Stamos, my day is made!”). However, if used irresponsibly it can have serious results.

In my classes at Mount Union, we are routinely told to watch what we put on our social media sites. Besides potentially landing you in legal hot water, online commentary can be a determining factor as to whether you land new clients or offend them to the point that they go elsewhere. It’s okay to have an opinion, but it’s also important to be smart when posting. This Twibel case proves that no longer are flame wars the worst that can happen in social media. 140 characters can cost you thousands of dollars in legal fees.

Where do you stand? Will this case make you think twice about what you tweet? Or is this a case of someone taking the litigation impulse a little too far?

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