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In defamation suit arising from report of nightclub confrontation between rappers, New York appellate court holds that plaintiff adequately alleged that published statements taken out of context from his Twitter post were false.
The Daily Holdings, Inc., which published an iPad-only, subscription-based publication called The Daily, and its parent company, News Corporation, appealed a New York trial court’s denial of their motion to dismiss claims for libel and libel per se brought by plaintiff John Rashad Franklin, also known as DJ Rashad Hayes. Franklin accused the defendants of libel and libel per se for statements published in The Daily and attributed to him. The statements were included in an account of an altercation between rappers Chris Brown and Drake, and their respective entourages at Manhattan nightclub WIP, where Franklin occasionally worked as a DJ. The fight revolved around the rappers’ mutual romantic interest in singer Rhianna. Two of Franklin’s friends tweeted to Franklin about the confrontation. Although Franklin claimed he was not present at the club that night, he responded on his public Twitter account, in apparent jest, “I was gonna start shooting in the air but I decided against it. Too much violence in the hip hop community.”
In its article about the fight, The Daily published two statements that Franklin claimed defamed him.
“‘So we’re sitting in there. Me, a couple of others, Chris,’ eyewitness DJ Rashad Hayes said. ‘Drake comes in and keeps eyeballing the table.’ …
“And then things erupted. As rappers Maino and Meek Mill looked on, Brown and Drake’s entourages threw bottles and fists throughout the club. ‘I was gonna start shooting in the air but I decided against it,’ Hayes said.”
Franklin alleged that he never made the first statement because he was not at the nightclub that evening. Furthermore, Franklin alleged that because The Daily published only the first half of his tweet, it changed the context and meaning of his statement, which made him appear to be prone to violence. Franklin also complained that the statements made it appear that he was willing to speak with the press about events at elite nightclubs and their clientele. Franklin claimed these statements harmed his rising DJ career, as he was no longer invited to DJ at the nightclub and lost a number of other business opportunities.
The defendants moved to dismiss, arguing that the statements attributed to Franklin could not be considered defamatory and, because Franklin posted the tweet that appeared in the article, the statement was nonactionable because it was substantially true. The trial court denied defendants’ motion, and they appealed.
As a threshold issue, the appellate court analyzed whether the alleged statements at issue had a defamatory meaning — that is, whether the statement could have injured the plaintiff by subjecting him to public contempt or ridicule. The appellate court found that the “so we’re sitting in there…” statement and the “and then things erupted…” statement could not be libel per se because, without extrinsic facts, a reasonable person reading the statements would not think anything negative about Franklin. The appellate court rejected Franklin’s argument that his reputation had been harmed because the statements implied he could not maintain the confidences of the club’s clientele. The court found that, without knowledge of the extrinsic fact that DJs are expected to keep such confidences, a reasonable juror would not view the statements as defamatory. Because libel per se cannot be based on statements that are false only by reference to extrinsic facts, the court dismissed this portion of Franklin’s claims.
On the libel cause of action, the appellate court considered whether the partial use of Franklin’s tweet amounted to defamation. The defendants argued that because there was no dispute that Franklin actually tweeted the statement, it was not false – which is an essential element of any defamation claim. Franklin countered that using only the first half of his tweet out of context created an impression that was not made by the entire tweet itself.
In a precedential ruling, the appellate court found that “[a] reader could read the alleged defamatory statement in the context of the rest of the article and think that plaintiff was actually present in the club, prepared to shoot a firearm; whereas, a reader of plaintiff’s isolated statement on Twitter may not have the same impression. In this unique case, the context of the two versions of the same statement is crucial.”
The appellate court also reviewed the “own words” defense that exists in many jurisdictions when alleged defamatory statements include the plaintiff’s own words. This defense generally provides that a plaintiff cannot be defamed by the use of his own words. The court declined to adopt the “own words” defense as a matter of New York law, noting that it was aware of no authority, in either New York state jurisprudence or in the Second Circuit, either expressly accepting or rejecting this defense.
On the issue of damages, the court noted that Franklin’s request for $3 million in special damages for harm to his reputation and career did not meet the requirement that special damages be “fully and accurately stated.” However, the court permitted Franklin to amend his complaint to provide a more accurate statement of his special damages. Finally, the appellate court dismissed the claims against News Corp., rejecting Franklin’s alter ego argument for piercing the corporate veil, because Franklin did not allege that News Corp. dominated the actions of The Daily or that such domination was used by News Corp. to harm Franklin.