Jan 25, 2014

In the End, Love Wins

A jury found Friday that singer Courtney Love did not libel her former attorney when she sent a tweet stating, ""I was fucking devestated when Rhonda J. Holmes esq. of san diego was purchased off ..."

According to a report by Spin magazine, the jury agreed with Holmes that the tweet alleged that Holmes been bribed to refused to represent Love in disputes relating to the estate of her husband, Kurt Cobain. The jury found that this statement was untrue, and that it probably harmed Holmes' reputation. But the jury also held that Holmes had not met the required standard for showing that Love made the statement with "actual malice." In response to the question,“Did Rhonda Holmes prove by clear and convincing evidence that Courtney Love knew it was false or doubted the truth of it?” on the verdict sheet, the jury answered “No."

The jury also found that Love had not libeled Holmes in a separate statement to a radio reporter. 

Holmes was required to show that Love acted with "actual malice" -- either actually knowledge that the statement was untrue or reckless disregard whether the statement was true or false -- because the trial court earlier held that Holmes was public figure; under U.S. Supreme Court precedent, such public figures must show actual malice to prevail in a libel lawsuit. The Supreme Court has held that public figures cannot recover most forms of damages unless they show that the defendant acted with actual malice by "clear and convincing evidence."

In her testimony during the trial, Love said that she had meant to sent the message private, not as a public tweet, and that she deleted it as soon as she discovered the mistake.

In the end, the jury's verdict -- and the questions on the jury form -- were based on conventional media law as it has developed over the past 50 years, So, legally, the case does not set any kind of precedent. But it does serve as a reminder -- in case one was needed -- that social media can indeed be the basis for a libel suit. Bloggers, tweeters and texters beware.

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One final note: There's been a bit of a debate online about whether this is, indeed, the first Twitter libel ("twibel") trial in a United States court. I believe that it is, based on my monitoring of libel cases nationwide (for the Media Law Resource Center until 2010, and on my own since then). There have been libel trials based on Twitter abroad (like this one). And there have certainly been other cases filed in American courts (see this, this, this, this), including some involving Courtney Love (here), but none has gone to trial

This trial obviously received a lot of attention because of the celebrity defendant. But with me and several other individuals and groups watching, I think that we would know about any prior "twibel" trial in the U.S.


Eric P. Robinson said...

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the judge was skeptical of Rhonda Holmes' motion for a new trial in her case against Courtney Love at a April 8 hearing. The official ruling on the motion is still pending, however.

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