L.A. Lakers Player Beats Strange Defamation Claim Over TMZ-Related Tweet

A California judge says that a basketball star who was accused of rape doesn't "adopt" the contents of an article merely by discussing the subject on Twitter.
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Devin Ebanks

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines "social media" as a form of electronic communication through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages and other content.

We all know that the media can sometimes get things wrong. (CNN recently proved this.) The question of the day is whether a user on social media can be held liable for passing along wrong information that damages someone's reputation.

To be more specific, we'll point to a somewhat strange lawsuit that just made for an interesting ruling.

The defendant in the case is Devin Ebanks, a forward on the Los Angeles Lakers who was accused by a woman of rape. On Dec. 7, 2011, TMZ published an article titled "L.A. Laker Devin Ebanks -- Cleared in Rape Investigation" and included some "crazy" details about what allegedly happened. That same day, Ebanks took some delight at the news on Twitter. Then, an acquaintance named Junior who introduced Ebanks to the woman responded by tweeting, "glad you got cleared...," which led Ebanks to respond, "thanks bro next time u wanna hook me up, dnt lol."

The woman later would anonymously sue Ebanks for sexual assault, but what made the case so unusual is that the woman included a claim for defamation for what was said by him on Twitter.

Ebanks responded with an anti-SLAPP motion to strike the claim. His lawyers pointed to his protected free speech.

That paved the way for a rather unique argument by the woman's lawyers in hopes of saving the charge that Ebanks had committed slander:

"When Defendant responded to the Twitter message, 'I'm glad you got cleared on that incident,' Defendant Ebanks adopted the false statements included in the TMZ article, thus defaming Plaintiff Jane Doe. While the issue of rape and violence against women are very well issues of public interest, the TMZ article was nothing more than a salacious article to spread gossip and intrigue. More to the point, the Twitter messages [were] not about rape, or even about a Laker member being cleared, but about Defendant Ebanks' personal, private desire not to be 'hooked up' with women who would actually dare to report a rape to law enforcement. His hook-ups and personal, private preferences serve no issue of public interest. His comments served only to 'gather ammunition' for his private and self-serving interests."

Can a Twitter user who indirectly references a possibly erroneous media report attach themselves to the inaccuracies inherent?

That's what the woman's lawyer was claiming! Because the tweet happened on the same day as the TMZ article, the woman's lawyers say that he "adopted" the inaccuracies -- and that readers "reasonably interpreted the Twitter messages as referring to the TMZ article."

On Friday, Los Angeles Superior Court judge Samantha Jessner responded to these arguments.

In her ruling, she says there is a public issue here because of the defendant's celebrity, the gravity of the rape charge and the connection between the two. "One cannot ignore the impact of a Lakers player being accused of rape, no matter whether he is a widely known Lakers player or not, in light of the notoriety received when the most well-known Lakers player, Kobe Bryant, was previously accused of rape."

Turning to the question of whether the woman had a probability of prevailing on her slander claim, the judge addresses the unique social media issue.

"While the Twitter conversation and the TMZ article were published on the same date, the Twitter conversation does not specifically reference the article other than to speak of the same incident the article covered," writes the judge.

Jessner adds, "The use of the words 'clear' or 'cleared' by Junior does not amount to an adoption of the content of the TMZ article, as plaintiff argues, because these words are quite common when speaking of the dropping of criminal charges. It is reasonable to infer that Junior saw the TMZ article, but it is not reasonable to then conclude that defendant adopted the contents..."

Here is the full ruling that strikes the defamation claim.

Ebanks was represented by Gregory Gabriel of Kinsella Weitzman.

E-mail: eriq.gardner@thr.com; Twitter: @eriqgardner