Lawsuit Highlights Twitter Free Speech Issues
September 8, 2015

Actor James Woods’ $10 million defamation lawsuit against an anonymous Twitter user for calling Woods a “cocaine addict” in a July 15 tweet, is shining a light on online free speech. The complaint names that tweet and also mentions several others in which the Twitter user allegedly called Woods derogatory names. Attorneys for the defendant have responded with an Anti-SLAPP motion asking that Woods’ lawsuit be dismissed.

Special Counsel discusses the lawsuit and the defendant’s response to it on HuffPost Live. He examines free speech distinctions between public figures and private persons, and looks at how the 1996 Communications Decency Act influences online information sharing. Also taking part in the discussion are Ken White, attorney for the Twitter user, and Clay Calvert, professor of mass communication from the University of Florida.

The Anti-SLAPP statute is designed to protect free speech rights. Applied to this situation, He explains that to be successful, the defendant will need to establish that the alleged defamatory tweet related to a matter of public interest or concern. (See video: 3:30.)

In claiming defamation, there are distinctions between public figures and private persons. There is a constitutional interest in letting people speak about public figures; therefore, a public figure plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant’s statement was knowingly false, or at least that the defendant acted with reckless disregard as to the falsity of the statement. By contrast, with private plaintiffs, all that is required is that the defendant was negligent with regard to the falsity of the statement. (See video: 8:00.)

Reposting or re-sharing of allegedly defamatory statements may be protected by the Communications Decency Act. Under Section 230 of the Act, a computer service provider or user will not be held liable for a defamatory statement unless they materially contributed to the content of that statement. (See video: 14:40.)

On HuffPost Live