James Woods Loses Bid to Discover Who Called Him a "Cocaine Addict" on Twitter

A judge rules that the actor's $10 million defamation lawsuit first needs to examine whether an offensive tweet qualifies as a "figurative rhetorical insult."
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James Woods' annoyance at being called a "cocaine addict" on Twitter will take a back seat to the First Amendment. In the conservative actor's $10 million defamation lawsuit against the anonymous individual who goes by the handle "Abe List," Woods won't be allowed to quickly learn the identity of his adversary. The actor will instead have to wait on a judge's determination as to whether his legal action has any likelihood of prevailing.

The provocative lawsuit came in July when Woods targeted a Twitter user also suggested the actor was a "clown" and "scum" and finally a "cocaine addict" upon Woods' criticism that the media hadn't adequately covered a Planned Parenthood scandal. In his lawsuit, Woods complained that the defendant's "reckless and malicious behavior, through the worldwide reach of the internet" had "jeopardized Woods' good name and reputation on an international scale." Looking to send a message to Twitter trolls everywhere, Woods aimed to unmask "Abe List," which prompted a scathing response from Twitter and an anti-SLAPP motion from the defendant, whose social media profile identifies "Abe List" as a Harvard-educated partner at an L.A.-based private equity firm.

Kenneth White, the attorney for the defendant, told the judge that the allegedly reputation-trashing tweet was "a constitutionally protected political insult," the type made routinely by Woods as "a well-known part of Twitter's culture of political hyperbole."

Woods demanded to subpoena Twitter, and Michael Weinsten, the actor's lawyer, wrote about how Twitter had been adopted by the mainstream media and public at large as a reliable source of information with an extremely influential impact on the beliefs of many.

"While conversations on Twitter can (and do) include opinion, jokes and hyperbole, it cannot be ignored that people believe what they read on on Twitter," wrote Weinsten, nodding to news reports emanating from erroneous tweets that South Carolina governor Nikki Haley had been indicted on tax fraud charges, that Con Edison was shutting down power in Manhattan as a result of Hurricane Sandy and one about an explosion at the White House.

The argument for discovery at this juncture also painted "cocaine addict" as a provably false statement, but one that would only rise to defamation if Woods, as a public figure, could show actual malice on the defendant's part. Woods said he expected that discovery would reveal that the defendant had malice and was reckless when making his statement on social media of the actor's supposed drug use.

Woods, however, hit a roadblock in the form of California's SLAPP statute, which is intended to deter an impingement of one's First Amendment rights at an early stage of litigation. The actor will need to show he has a likelihood of winning his case before the case moves forward, and until a judge takes up this issue, discovery attempts are paused on everything but evidence directly relevant to the anti-SLAPP motion itself.

L.A. Superior Court judge Mel Recana concludes that the defendant's mental state when making the tweet isn't material just yet in the case. In an order this week, the judge writes, "Defendant argues that if the court finds that the statement is a 'mere rhetorical insult,' then malice is irrelevant and defendant prevails. The court agrees that plaintiff is not entitled to discovery into malice at this stage. The anti-SLAPP motion is limited to whether the statement was a provable fact or a 'figurative rhetorical insult.' "

As a result, the defendant won't have to submit to discovery he found "harassing." Instead, the parties will be debating the nature of social media and how to assess rhetoric on platforms like Twitter. Both sides are armed with case law precedent on this point. A hearing on the anti-SLAPP motion is scheduled for February.