It’s pretty obvious that the power of the Internet in the hands of an attention-craving, rabble-rousing person can be downright dangerous (remember a little someone named Amanda Bynes, for instance?). The Twitter phenomenon has made not thinking before you speak easier than ever before. Aside from public judgement, a few dollars in settlements, and possibly losing your job as you jet to the other side of the world (ahem, Justine Sacco), people haven’t really been held legally accountable for what they type in the Twitterverse...until now. It seems Courtney Love, the drama-loving Mrs. to the late, great Kurt Cobain, got herself into some serious hot water after authoring a 2010 tweet, in which she alleged her then lawyer was “bought off,” and is now facing a fierce prosecutor in an LA courtroom in the first ever libel trial involving Twitter (do not call it Twibel, pretty please).
Like Love herself, Courtney’s tweets have had a sordid past and caused some major personal drama along the way. Who could forget when the grunge goddess lambasted her only daughter on Twitter, alleging that she had slept with Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, causing major heartache for both Frances Bean and Grohl. Or the $430,000 settlement Love was ordered to pay designer Dawn Simorangkir, after a series of statements she made on both Myspace and Twitter implied that Simorangkir had some kind of criminal past.
Unfortunately for Courtney, her tweet-first-settle-out-of-court-later strategy did not work this time; this tweet’s got legs. Though numerous libel cases have been filed on the heels of ugly tweets, this is the first time such a case has been brought to trial. In fact, the outcome of this case could easily set the precedent for how Internet libel cases are treated in the US from now on. That’s one powerful tweet!
Before we get any further, we’ll need to get some definitions straight. Defamation is knowingly making a false statement about someone that is potentially damaging to their good reputation. It is also known as vilification, traducement, or even calumny. Whatever you wanna call it, it’s ugly business. When this statement is written down, it’s called libel. When it’s spoken, it’s called slander.
As Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Drake Bennett points out, “most of the relevant legal opinions on libel date from a time when publishing meant printing or posting something in a newspaper or magazine -- institutions that, in part because of the fear of lawsuits, make some effort to keep outright falsehoods out of their pages. Twitter, on the other hand, allows any user to publish whatever he can fit into 140 characters.”