When Is a Tweet Libel?

The twittersphere is populated by tweeps. But when is a tweet twibel?

OK. Try saying that 20 times in a row!

Twibel is a term for a libelous tweet.

There have been at least four cases filed in U.S. courts in which a party has claimed to be defamed by someone else’s tweet.

Three have been settled out of court and a fourth made it to trial. Two of them—the first and the last—involved singer and actress Courtney Love, widow of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain.

What is Libel?

As we all know, going to court can be a horrible, draining experience. Before I go any farther, let’s make sure you understand some basic definitions.

  • Defamation is knowingly making a false statement that harms someone’s reputation.
  • If it’s spoken, it’s slander; if it’s written it’s libel.
  • False is the key word here. If it’s true, it could be tremendously injurious, but you can’t defame someone with the truth. Defamation is also not a crime, but a civil infraction or tort and subject to monetary or other penalties.
  • Learn more HERE.

Past Twitter Libel Lawsuits

So what’s the sordid history of twitter libel cases? 

  • In March 2009, Courtney Love made history by becoming the first person to be sued for tweeting by her fashion designer due to a business dispute. Courtney settled in 2011 for $430,000. Ouch!
  • Horizon Realty sued a property tenant who tweeted about her moldy apartment for $50,000 in July 2009. In 2013, an Illinois court dismissed the case.  Not sure what happened to the mold.
  • In 2011, an Oregon dentist sued a blogger for tweeting that he had tried to trade dental treatment a decade before for sex.  The $1 million lawsuit was settled out of court but the blog post was not taken down.

And the Envelope Please…

That brings us to case number four, the first Twitter libel case to go to trial by jury, Gordon & Holmes v. Love. In this case, Courtney Love accused her former attorney of nothing less than bribery:

“@noozjunkie I was fucking devestated [sic] when Rhonda J. Holmes esq. of san diego was bought off @FairNewsSpears perhaps you can get a quote.”

social-media-wild-west1-300x193The attorney filed an $8 million lawsuit accusing Love of libel. The tweet was deleted. Love claimed to be a “computer retard” and said she thought it was a direct message that only @FairNewsSears would see. Twitter is, to paraphrase, the Wild West, rife with exaggeration and over-the-top screeching. But the Los Angeles Superior Court judge didn’t buy it, so he allowed the court to go to trial.

In the End

The winner was Courtney Love and free speech. The jury’s decision didn’t stray too far from the landmark Sullivan Rule that said free speech must be allowed even if statements contain falsehoods as long as the defendant did not know they were false and reckless. In Love’s case, the jury decided that Rhonda Holmes couldn’t prove for a fact that Love knew the “bought off” claim was untrue. The case was not appealed and was a ruling only in one court district, although the decision is now a legal precedent. There’s a lesson here for everyone who tweets. Be careful what you tweet. Don’t make malicious statements you know are false. Don’t commit  twibel. 

Stay out of court.


Relay Station is all about digital strategy and online marketing. That includes websites and online advertising, too.
Contact me at 202.630.8014 or info@relaystationmedia.com for a free consultation.  We can help you communicate with more people, build your reputation, and expand your bottom line through strategy, tactics, and training. Follow me on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn. SUBSCRIBE TO THIS BLOG BY EMAIL OR RSS FEED.

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