Jury Will Decide If Courtney Love's Tweet Was Defamatory
In a summary judgment ruling, a judge denies the singer's argument that the hyperbolic nature of Twitter means that personal views expressed there are opinions instead of statements of fact.
At a hearing on Friday morning, a Los Angeles judge decided that a jury should determine next month whether Courtney Love defamed her ex-attorney in a tweet and news interview. The ruling means that unless there is an unexpected settlement in the next two weeks, Love will become the first celebrity to be subject to a trial over an allegedly defamatory social media message.
The rock star is in trouble over tweet from 2010 that read, "I was fucking devestated [sic] when Rhonda J. Holmes esq. of san diego was bought off @FairNewsSpears perhaps you can get a quote."
Rhonda Holmes was hired by Love in 2008 to pursue a fraud case against those handling the estate of Kurt Cobain, the late Nirvana frontman who was Love's husband. Holmes says she was terminated, while Love maintains that her ex-lawyer failed to perform her task.
After being accused of bribery by Love on Twitter, Holmes and her law firm are pursuing defamation claims.
There's a great deal that's unprecedented about this dispute. Among the big issues is how a judge and jury will regard a casual communications medium like Twitter.
In a summary judgment motion, Love's attorneys argued that the tweet -- as well as a follow-up press interview -- wasn't defamatory on its face. Among the arguments is that the tweet qualified as opinion because of the hyperbole and exaggeration associated with the Internet. Among the cases they cited were those examining what reasonable readers expect when viewing comments made on a "Rants and Raves" website, an anonymous gossip online message board and an Internet chat room.
"The cases relied upon by Defendant are inapposite, because they involve statements quite different from a Tweet," wrote Judge Michael Johnson in a tentative opinion that was adopted as final today. "In our case the statements involved comments that Defendant made about her own lawyer in a widely used Internet vehicle for communicating personal views."
The judge also rejected Love's position that the defamatory claim made by Holmes' law firm -- Gordon & Holmes -- should be dismissed because the tweet didn't identify the law firm. The standard of libel law is that a statement must be "of and concerning" a plaintiff, but the judge notes that implication counts. Whether or not the circumstances of Love's tweet and interview add up to statements made about the law firm is a triable issue, said the judge.
Similarly, the judge will let a jury tackle the issue of whether Love had malice when making her statements. As a limited purpose public figure for her involvement with Love and Kurt Cobain, Holmes will need to demonstrate that Love had knowledge that her bribery accusation was false. She'll at least need to show that Love recklessly disregarded the truth. In a deposition, Love said that she had let her attorney go for not performing, which the attorney sees as an admission that there was no bribery. The judge says it's a triable issue.
Although Love wasn't successful in prevailing on a summary judgment motion, neither were the defendants entirely. At the trial, Judge Johnson will allow the singer to pursue affirmative defenses including that the tweet had "substantial truth." Love's court papers say the plaintiff has "failed to introduce any evidence in their moving papers, let alone clear and convincing evidence, that Holmes was not 'bought off' or 'gotten to.'"
"Our client looks forward to getting before a jury," said plaintiffs attorney Mitchell Langberg after the hearing today."Just because you have printing press in pocket via Twitter, you don't get to say whatever you want.
The attorney predicted that a jury would hold Love "even more responsible" because on a medium like Twitter comments live on instead of "going into the trash." Foreshadowing the big legal issues ahead, Langberg adds, "How do you assess damages when something has been so widely broadcast lives out on the Internet forever? I give lectures and one of things I say is 'Be careful what you tweet.' It's a casual forum, which makes it all the more insidious."
The trial is scheduled to begin on January 13. Love is being represented by attorneys at the law firm of Dongell Lawrence Finney.