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This post is about a single tweet, and then a follow-up quote given to a news website. Here it goes…
“I was fucking devestated when Rhonda J Holmes esq of San Diego was bought off.” (sic)
“I’ve been hiring and firing lawyers to help me with this.” She goes on to tell of a female attorney who has since stopped taking her calls because “they got to her” after she mentioned something to Page 6 of the New York Post. “She’s disappeared.”
The tweet was sent by rocker Courtney Love in June 2010. The quote came from Love a month later. Now attorney Rhonda Holmes and her law firm are suing Love for libel. Hold onto your seat for some parsing of language, as only lawyers do best.
What would a reasonable person think was meant by these statements?
Obviously, Love is upset at some lawyer. That’s easy.
Those who understood some context might know that Holmes represented Love in matters concerning a possible fraud on the estate of Kurt Cobain. Those who understand a lot of context might have heard the story of how Love fired Holmes when the lawyer asked the singer to refrain from substance abuse, only to come back a few months later, begging unsuccessfully for Holmes to resume representation.
Even without the context, “bought off” sounds like the factual suggestion of a bribe, doesn’t it? Can this be explained away?
Love’s new lawyer, Michael Niborski at Pryor Cashman, has been trying.
“Obviously, the phrase ‘they got to her’…can mean many different things,” wrote Niborski in a demurrer. “For example, it more plausibly means ‘they irritated her’ or ‘they wore her down’ or ‘they reasoned with her.’ It does not necessarily mean ‘they bribed her into ceasing her legal representation of Courtney Love.”
Niborski continues his ontological examination….”Who are ‘they’? Who is ‘her?'”
“There is no limit to one’s imagination regarding the possible meaning of a phrase like ‘they got to her,'” added Niborski in the demurrer. “This phrase could be meant to express any of a number of thoughts. Unlike, for instance, the hypothetical phrase ‘Rhonda Holmes accepted a bribe,’ the phrase ‘they got to her’ is essentially meaningless in and of itself, without context.”
So why is this all very important?
Given the casual nature of a social media website like Twitter, the line between fact and opinion can be a thin one. Obviously, facts can be libelous whereas opinions can’t be.
Meanwhile, implications stand as a monkey wrench in the neat dichotomy. Things can be literally true yet insinuate falsehood. There’s some hot ongoing legal debate about the standards for showing “defamation by implication,” with some states being generous towards plaintiffs. Ultimately, this may prove important for a medium like Twitter where everyone writes their thoughts — thanks to character limits — in shorthand.
Niborski challenged California judge Ramona See to dismiss much of what the plaintiffs are alleging in this case. He wanted it ruled that Holmes’law firm wasn’t defamed because neither the tweet nor the news quote was “of and concerning” the firm. He further argued that the news quote was not “of and concerning” Holmes herself. And, as for the content of the quote, he told the judge, “The very fact that Plaintiffs concern themselves with the implication of the statement, and not its literal meaning, provides the Court with a sufficient basis to find that the statement is not libelous per se.”
A hearing on this matter was held on Thursday at the LA Superior Court.
Judge See didn’t buy Niborski’s theories. She has tentatively ruled that the alleged defamatory twitter posting “may be reasonably interpreted by the average reader as a statement of fact, and the statement expressly identified “Rhonda J. Holmes” and referred to Gordon & Holmes ‘by clear implication.'”
The case continues and looks headed to a jury trial.
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