Courtney Love, widow of Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain and lead singer of the punk-rock band Hole, is no stranger to controversy. This month sees her in Los Angeles County Superior Court where she is being sued by Dawn Simonrangkir for defamation, false light invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, breach of contract and tortious interference with economic advantage (Dawn Simonrangkir a/k/a Dawn Younger-Smith a/k/a Boudoir Queen v Courtney Michelle Love and Does 1-25 inclusive, Case No. BC 41059). There is a discussion of the case on the “Unruly of Law” blog.
The dispute is said to have began after fashion-designer Simonrangkir (known also as “Boudoir Queen”) demanded payment for clothing she had supplied to Ms. Love. It is alleged that in response Ms. Love took to her Twitter page and posted a series of defamatory comments describing Ms. Simonrangkir as a “drug-pushing prostitute” and “nasty lying hosebag thief”. And that was just for starters….
This is not, of course, the first time that Ms. Love has found herself in hot water. Nonetheless it does give her the rare distinction of being the first celebrity “Tweeter” to be sued for defamation over her online comments and ignites a wider debate about social networking sites and libel law.
Twitter’s hallmark is its simplicity: users transmit bite-size nuggets of information (limited to 140 characters) on their individual pages. Though it still trails behind its social-networking forefathers such as Facebook, it is rapidly gaining global traction. According to comScore Twitter attracted 58m web visitors in October 2010 alone and is expanding rapidly in countries such as Japan, Indonesia and Germany.
What distinguishes Twitter from Facebook, however, is the nature of the relationship which underlies it. On Facebook users can only communicate if one agrees to be the “friend” of the other. Twitter imposes no such restriction. People can sign up and follow any other user they like from Barack Obama (6,435,770 followers) to the Tesco supermarket chain (a more modest 4,893) to you or I. Twitter also permits individuals to read and reply to other users whether they are a follower or not and in so doing, turns every user into a de facto broadcaster with a potentially limitless audience.
This is significant. The average user would probably consider their Tweets more akin to a conversation between friends; an electronic version of a café where you can grumble privately, even if you may be overheard. Many would not realise that the rules of defamation apply, or even what those rules are. When Amanda Bonnen Tweeted about mould in her Chicago apartment in 2009 she was sued for US$50,000 by the management company (named in her Tweet), despite the fact she had only 20 followers at the time. Many bloggers were incensed at this perceived infringement of Ms. Bonnen’s right of free speech.
However, courts in the UK are adapting to the changing online environment. Any forum which makes an individual’s comments available to the public could satisfy the requirement of publication necessary to bring a defamation claim. For example, Twitter is the primary milieu in the current libel case of Cairns v Modi ( EWHC 2859 (QB)), where key issues include both the number of followers who read the Tweet directly and the risk of its republication elsewhere. Ms Love’s case serves as a stark reminder that derogatory comments posted in rage or jest could have serious legal ramifications.
Laura McNair-Wilson is a barrister at Matrix Chambers