Is Free Speech a Valid Defense Against Internet Defamation?

The People vs. Larry Flynt was a great flick. Woody Harrelson played the notoriously difficult Hustler founder, Larry Flint, and Courtney Love portrayed Flynt’s, drug-addled wife, Althea.

We often hear of life imitating art; in the case of Courtney Love, that almost happened earlier this month. Like her character in the movie, Love was on her way to a jury-seated, defamation trial.

Courtney Love’s Real-Life Defamation Legal Problems

In 2009, Courtney Love took to Twitter and proceeded to pump out a 20-minute, unflattering diatribe about fashion designer, Dawn Simorangkir (a.k.a., “The Boudoir Queen”). In her tirade, Love decided to tell the Internet that Simorangkir was a drug-dealing Madame who lost her kids over an assault and battery incident.

Dawn Simorangkir, armed with proof that Love’s claims were untrue, slapped the rocker with a defamation lawsuit. It was expected to be the first high-profile, Twitter-defamation suit to be heard in court by a jury. Alas, after considerable negotiations, the two sides reached a settlement in which Love agreed to pay Simorangkir $430,000 over the next three years.

The First Amendment Defamation Defense

When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Larry Flynt over Jerry Falwell, one of the main legal points to emerge from the decision was that statements and works in question had to exude a “reasonable expectation of truth”. Since Flint’s outhouse cartoon of Falwell was recognized by most to be a satirical joke, the Reverend’s claims of defamation fell flat. Moreover, Flynt and his lawyers made a strong case for free speech.

Based on deposition transcripts, Courtney Love planned to use a First Amendment defense if her Internet defamation case had gone to trial. It was expected Love would testify that her tweets were opinions. Legal eagles were eager to see this case heard by a jury. It would have set a standard for whether or not, in the eyes of the law, Twitter was considered a publication and if tweeters were bound to traditional journalistic standards.

Considering that defamation law currently differs for those leading public and private lives, it would have been interesting to see if the jury felt that famous people should be held to a more stringent, journalistic twitter standard than the average Citizen.

Update: Uh-oh, it looks like Courtney Love has wandered into another Twitter defamation lawsuit.

If you are in need of a lawyer to help negotiate an Internet defamation case, Kelly / Warner Law can help. We specialize in Internet law and have helped hundreds reclaim their online reputations