Originally published January 24, 2014 at 6:22 p.m., updated January 27, 2014 at 2:08 p.m.
By David Wagner
Can tweets be libelous? Of course they can, say legal experts. But defamation on social media can be hard to prove, as demonstrated in a trial involving rock singer Courtney Love and her former attorney.
San Diego attorney Rhonda Holmes has lost her libel lawsuit against grunge icon Courtney Love. On Friday, a Los Angeles jury found that Holmes couldn't prove Love deliberately defamed her over Twitter and in later press interviews.
The case represented a social media milestone: the first time a public figure had to defend a tweet in court.
Holmes believed Love — a former client — defamed her in a 2010 tweet reading, "I was (expletive) devastated when Rhonda J Holmes Esq of san diego was bought off." Love also told reporters, "they got to her," in reference to Holmes. The prosecution argued these statements falsely claimed Holmes took bribes in return for severing ties with Love.
Even though Love was ultimately found to have not committed libel, Prof. Junichi Semitsu of the University of San Diego School of Law says this case shows Twitter is fair game in libel suits. Anyone can be held accountable in court for what they tweet about others.
"There is no Twitter exception for defamation," Semitsu said. "For people who tweet thinking 'I can say whatever I want,' this case should serve as a wake-up call."
However, Semitsu admits the nature of Twitter might have helped Love fend off so-called "twibel" charges. Context matters in defamation law. And if reasonable minds conclude Love's tweet was never meant to be taken seriously, charges should be dismissed.
"People do use Twitter often as a forum for opinions, for satire, for jokes, for exaggerated commentary. And that was a strong argument in her favor," Semitsu said.
Love's Twitter account in particular is notoriously inflammatory. Her own daughter once said, "Twitter should ban my mother." In a weird way, Love's reputation might have worked to her advantage, according to Semitsu.
"Her history of saying incredibly loopy things means that perhaps no one should take her seriously," Semitsu said.
Throughout the eight-day trial, Love's defense maintained she meant to send the tweet privately as a direct message. She deleted it minutes after posting.
The jury deliberated for only three hours, and Love was not present when Judge Michael Johnson read the verdict.