Are You Guilty of ‘Twibel’? What Courtney Love’s Twitter Lawsuit Means For Social Media [INTERVIEW]

Considering the landmark nature of the case, the recent verdict in the Courtney Love Twitter defamation case passed relatively quietly. Now if you’re looking up from your tin of beans saying, “What Courtney Love Twitter defamation case? And why should I care?” That’s perfectly understandable. I myself failed to recognize the magnitude and potential implication of what has been going down over the past couple years, and what it all means to us social media users.

Briefly, it goes like this: Courtney Love, former wife of former Kurt Cobain, went on everyone’s favorite microblogging site in 2010 to trash her lawyer at the time (now former lawyer, obviously – lot of “formers” associated with Ms. Love) and state that her lawyer’s integrity had been compromised.

“I was (expletive) devastated when Rhonda J Holmes Esq of san diego was bought off.”


Quite rightly, Ms. Holmes didn’t like the assertion and filed an $8 million lawsuit against the former frontwoman for the rock band Hole. Social media postings had never been challenged in this way before – could what you said on Twitter really be held against you?

After several years and many, many dollars in law fees we now have our answer: No.

Before you go, “whew,” and resume posting venomous rants against the good people at the Soylent Green Corporation, know that this isn’t so much the end of the storm as it is the beginning of one. Despite my extensive law knowledge (which basically begins and ends with “Don’t pull my ‘Mr. Wiggle’ out in public”), I decided we’d all be better off listening to someone with more authority on the matter. Terri Seligman, the co-chair of the advertising, marketing and public relations group at Frankfurt, Kurnit, Klein +Selz, is not only one of those big-shot New York City attorneys, but she’s a guest speaker during this year’s social media week – happening right now in the Big Apple. Normally I’d just take all her answers and pass them off as my own, but she seems to be an expert at that sort of thing, so it’s best to just let her speak for herself.

131220-courtney-love-tweet-lawsuitHow does the resolution of this lawsuit affect social media users? Does it make future cases of this nature more or less likely?

Bloggers who see the jury verdict exonerating Ms. Love as a license to “Twibel” do so at their peril. Ms. Love won the case but it was a long, hard (and undoubtedly expensive) battle going all the way through a jury verdict. If bloggers read the case as giving them more freedom to say whatever they want in their posts, no matter how defamatory, then there will be more of these cases, not fewer. It’s true that potential plaintiffs will have to think long and hard before going after a blogger, particularly in light of the Love verdict, but pursuing a defamation claim has always been difficult: such cases are very fact-specific and difficult to win. And they’re equally difficult and expensive to defend. No one really wins. Ultimately, I don’t think one can read too much into the outcome of the Love case, one way or another other, except to know that Twitter has now joined traditional media in being an official battleground for these suits.

What are some guidelines social media users should adhere to if they choose to engage in, say, potentially vicious tweeting?

A blogger who chooses to engage in vicious tweeting in a public forum had better be sure that she’s right about the facts or be clearly stating her own opinion. And if she’s using a social platform to send a private message, rather than a public post, she should pause before hitting the send button to make sure she’s actually using the right functionality. A blogger also has to consider the rules of the road for the platform itself and her own job responsibilities. If she has a public-facing job, her boss may not be pleased to see her engaging in a nasty public brawl. As we all know now, social media blurs all lines: it’s no longer really possible to keep one’s personal, professional, public and political personas separate. With that blurring of lines comes greater responsibility to exercise good judgment: a stupid offhand remark you make to a friend can be broadcast around the world if you have enough people following you online.


You’re doing a presentation at social media week — how did that come about?

I’m lucky to be involved with two presentations during Social Media Week. One, hosted by my law firm, Frankfurt Kurnit, is called Rules of the Road: Four Areas of Law Every Social Media Marketer Should Know. That panel includes lawyers from Jet Blue, Johnson & Johnson and Mashable, along with an IP litigator from our firm, Ned Rosenthal, and myself. The panel’s moderator, Greg Boyd, is another partner at the firm, who specializes in interactive entertainment. Our firm is really at the forefront of these issues because, as media lawyers, we’re counseling our brand, agency and celebrity clients on social media issues on a daily basis. The second panel I’m involved with is called Advertising and Legal Issues in Social Media: How to Get it Right. That panel is hosted by the Advertising Self Regulatory Council (“ASRC”) and will feature speakers from the Federal Trade Commission and the self-regulatory agencies NAD, ERSP and CARU. ASRC asked me to participate in the panel to represent the “brand perspective.” I think that both of these sold-out presentations will really help marketers understand the difficult legal issues at stake when using social media and how better to navigate those issues responsibly and creatively.

Here’s more important stuff you should know about social media and the law:

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