Are You Liable For Retweeting A Defamatory Post: TMZ Case Study

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Am I liable for retweeting a defamatory statement on social media?

Is it unlawful to retweet a defamatory statement? Is it OK to mention a libelous article on social media? A California judge ruled on the issue. Her decision: discussing potentially defamatory articles on social media doesn’t mean you will be held liable for libel. You can be; but not always.

Case Study: Are You Liable For Retweeting A Defamatory Post?

According to reports, on September 13, 2011, Devin Ebanks – a forward for the Los Angeles Lakers – left a club with a woman. Later that night, the woman was in contact with law enforcement officials; she claimed Ebanks raped her; he insisted that they never had sex.

The night of the incident, the woman filed a rape complaint against Ebanks, and the police opened an investigation. After several days, TMZ reported that the police completed an investigation and cleared Ebanks. According to the gossip website, law enforcement officials didn’t find evidence of “foreign DNA” on the accuser. Plus, reports surfaced that the claimant had allegedly made unfounded sexually related claims against other professional athletes.

Social Media Conversation Leads To Twitter Defamation Lawsuit

The day that TMZ published the story, Ebanks tweeted with his friend, Junior. (Junior happened to be the guy who set-up Ebanks and his accuser.) During the online back-and-forth, Ebanks jibed Junior about never setting him up with another woman.

Time passed, and presumably still unsatisfied, the woman filed a Jane Doe sexual assault civil complaint against Ebanks. Curiously, in her filing, Doe argued that since Ebanks tweeted about the contents of the TMZ article, he committed online libel. The claim had legal people wondering: “Are people liable for retweeting a defamatory statement?” Doe’s lawyer reasoned:

“When defendant responded to the Twitter message, ‘I’m glad you got cleared on that incident,’ Defendant Ebanks adopted the false statements included in the TMZ article, thus defaming Plaintiff Jane Doe.”

In other words, since TMZ’s article was ‘salacious’ and Ebanks’ Twitter messages “were not about rape (and therefore not a matter of public interest),” his actions were self-serving and done to gather ammunition against his accuser.

Anti-SLAPP Response To Twitter Defamation Claim & Judge’s Ruling

Ebanks countered Jane Doe’s suit with an Anti-SLAPP motion. The question under consideration: “Can a Twitter user be held liable for re-tweeting or discussing inaccurate information that damages someone’s reputation?” Ultimately, the judge reasoned that, in this case, the defendant didn’t “adopt” the contents, or any possible inaccuracies, of the TMZ article by talking about it on Twitter. Specifically, the judge reasoned:

“While the Twitter conversation and TMZ article were published on the same date, the Twitter conversation does not specifically reference the article other than to speak of the same incident the article covered.”

Are you embroiled in a Twitter defamation melee? We do more than just answer questions like, “Am I liable for retweeting a defamatory statement?” Kelly Warner maintains a dedicated online defamation practice. Get in touch.