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Why a Singer's Twitter Rant Could Set Up a Defamation Showdown

Many of the big issues involving alleged Twitter defamation still need judicial guidance. Will a record executive's lawsuit against singer Johnny Gill be the case to do it?

When Notifi Records CEO Ira DeWitt sued former New Edition singer Johnny Gill last week for alleged defamation on Twitter, the executive became the latest test subject for how comments online will be treated by the courts.

According to the lawsuit, @RealJohnnyGill accused DeWitt of hiring another singer to finish vocals on his song and then creating a fake Twitter page to leak the unfinished single. Gill claimed his record deal gave him authority over which songs were released as singles. 

Further, the singer is alleged to have attacked the reputation of DeWitt and her company by saying on Twitter that she was "deranged" and "f**king nuts," that Notifi was a fake company, and that she had a "hard on" for the song's producer.

The comments are claimed to be defamatory because they "charge DeWitt with criminal, improper and immoral conduct."

Does the lawsuit have legs? Let's hope so. (UPDATE: Settlement. See below) Many of the issues involving defamation on Twitter still have yet to be fully guided and fleshed out by judges.

Earlier this year, we reported on a fashion designer's lawsuit against Courtney Love and noted that the trial was expected to explore such issues as whether the average Twitter user would interpret vicious tweets as facts or opinions, as well as how to calculate damages in such disputes.

Before it got to trial, Love paid $430,000 to settle, and other cases involving defamation on Twitter have similarly been resolved. For example, last March, a British politician paid nearly $5,000 to make a lawsuit alleging tweet-defamation against a rival go away.

Perhaps this will be the case that actually gets before a jury. If so, it'll be fascinating to watch how DeWitt makes the case that allegations of an improper leak -- another sensitive topic -- were damaging to her reputation.

According to the complaint, Gill's tweeting "injure(d) DeWitt in her trade and business by imputing to her a lack of integrity and professionalism that has a natural tendency to lessen her ability to conduct business in the music producing industry."

For his part, Gill says he sees this as a "freedom of speech"  issue, telling TMZ that imposing more liability on things said in the Twitterverse would mean that "the courtrooms would be filled with a bunch of Twitter people complaining about things people say every day."

UPDATE 8/25: Celebrity twitter defamation will have to wait another day in court. The parties have come to an amicable settlement. DeWitt has agreed to drop her lawsuit and says in a statement: “Notifi is proud to be releasing Still Winning, Johnny’s first album in 16 years on October 11. I’m very happy to put this dispute behind us and I’m confident that his loyal fans will be thrilled with the final product."

E-mail: eriqgardner@yahoo.com

Twitter: @eriqgardner