News Corp. Subsidiary Can't Dodge Defamation Suit Over Chris Brown-Drake Fight Story

The Daily quoted a person's Twitter feed. But just because it was an accurate quote doesn't mean it can't be defamatory.

It has become commonplace among digital publications to quote tweets. If a media outlet accurately quotes someone's own words on Twitter, can it rise to defaming the speaker? On Thursday, an appellate court in New York ruled it's indeed possible.

The dispute concerns a June 15, 2012, article in The Daily, which was a much hyped iPad-only publication by News Corp. before shutting down in December 2012.

The title of the post was "Ri-Ri's Rumble," covering an alleged fight between rappers Chris Brown and Drake and their entourages, supposedly over Brown's ex-girlfriend Rihanna.

John Franklin, a.k.a. DJ Rashad Hayes, is the plaintiff.

Two of his friends tweeted him about the fight. In response, he tweeted back, "I was gonna start shooting in the air but I decided against it. Too much violence in the hip hop community."

The article in The Daily included the first sentence of Franklin's tweet but not the second sentence. Franklin's attorney, Neil B. Solomon of McLaughlin & Stern, believes that The Daily "purposely did not include the second sentence because many readers of the tweet would rightfully interpret the full tweet as being a social commentary made in jest."

The story also incorporated other quotes attributed to Franklin -- including “So we’re sitting in there. Me, a couple others, Chris,” eyewitness DJ Rashad Hayes said. “Drake comes in and keeps eyeballing the table” -- to which Franklin objected, stating that they were fabricated. Solomon says Franklin was "not at the club on the night in question" and that the reason that The Daily fabricated these quotes was to "make it look like the tweet meant that he was at the club and on the verge of shooting a gun."

In today's opinion, the appeals court doesn't think those other quotes, even if fabricated, could be interpreted by a jury as defamatory without knowing more context like how employers expect DJs to not give interviews about happenings at trendy clubs. But Franklin asserts his career has been damaged as a result of the article, and as a result, the appeals court says he should be able to amend his complaint by pleading special damages.

But back to the Twitter statement, which is the precedential aspect of the new ruling.

News Corp. and its subsidiaries argued that that because it was a direct quote from Franklin via Twitter, it couldn't be actionable because it wasn't false. The appeals court points out that courts across the country have extended the "truth defense" to include an "own words" defense.

But at least at this stage, quoting a tweet accurately doesn't get the quoter off the hook.

"A reader could read the alleged defamatory statement in the context of the rest of the article and think that plaintiff was actually present in the club, prepared to shoot a firearm; whereas, a reader of plaintiff's isolated statement on Twitter may not have the same impression," writes New York Appellate Justice Barbara Kapnick. "In this unique case, the context of the two versions of the same statement is crucial."

Kapnick adds, "Even if we were to adopt the 'own words' defense, we find that it would not apply here where a comparison of the two statements reveals the potential for them to have different effects on the mind of the reader."

As of now, News Corp. has been dismissed from the lawsuit because the plaintiff failed to pierce the corporate veil, but Franklin is being allowed to amend his complaint and his legal action against others associated with The Daily story will continue.