Controversial rock star Courtney Love's defense against an allegedly defamatory tweet is the first time a Twitter libel case has gone to trial in the U.S. It could answer questions of how defamation law applies to social media.
WASHINGTON – In addition to her raunchy rock music and marriage to Kurt Cobain, the late frontman of Nirvana, Courtney Love is known for speaking her mind.
Now, Love is the defendant in the first U.S. Twitter libel case to go to trial for an allegedly defamatory tweet about her former lawyer.
Opening statements are due today, Wednesday.
A handful of Twitter libel, or Twibel, cases have been filed in the past, but all of the cases were settled before trial.
Ellyn Angelotti, Digital Trends and Social Media faculty member at Poynter Institute says Courtney Love’s case may finally answer some questions.
“Twibel law has been really ripe for a case to go to trial, so we can understand the elements of defamation in the Twitter space,” Angelotti says.
Love is being sued by Rhonda Holmes, an attorney who once defended a fraud case against those managing the estate of Cobain.
Holmes, in her filings, says she was fired after insisting that Love remain sober and drug-free during the case.
According to The Hollywood Reporter Love maintains she meant to send a DM — private direct message — but by mistake posted publicly to Twitter.
In a 2010 tweet, Love accused Holmes of bribery: “I was f****** devestated (sic) when Rhonda J. Holmes esq. of san diego was bought off.”
Last month, in a motion for summary judgment, Love argued the tweet was not defamatory because it should be considered an opinion, Angelotti writes in a Poynter post.
The Los Angeles Superior Court judge refused to throw out the case, setting it for trial.
Angelotti, who is an attorney, says it’s unclear how the court will apply traditional defamation law to Twitter.
“Courtney Love is a public figure. It will be interesting to see if there is analysis based on her reputation in the real-life community,” says Angelotti.
With more than a quarter-million followers, the judge will likely consider the reach of Love’s comments, says Angelotti.
“I’m wondering, even though she is a public figure, what role her number of Twitter followers will play in the court’s analysis,” says Angelotti.
Angelotti says the trial will also impact journalists and publishers, since another aspect of traditional defamation law is whether the comment is a matter of public concern.
“Traditionally, when an article is published in the news, that has been interpreted by the courts to be a matter of public concern,” Angelotti says.
The jury will be asked whether those who follow Love on Twitter would reasonably understand Love’s comments to be about Holmes and her firm.
Love’s lawyers will likely attempt to prove her comments were true.
“Absolutely. Truth is a defense for libel,” says Angelotti.
Angelotti says it remains to be seen what the remedies for defamation will be in the age of Twitter, and what sort of damages might be assessed.
Twitter itself is not in trouble.
“As a third-party publisher, social media sites like Twitter are protected by Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act and not liable for defamatory content that people post using its site,” says Angelotti.