A performer named Azealia Banks, who I don’t know of (fortunately) recently put out a stream of nasty tweets directed at former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin (who I do know of – unfortunately). Ms. Palin apparently told People Magazine she intends to sue Ms. Banks. But why pass up the opportunity to highlight the unique eloquence of the former Governor. Here is the statement:
“ I've had enough of the unanswered threats and attacks against my family and me. So, for the first time I'm going to enjoy the only retribution some protected 'celebrities' seem to understand – I'm suing Azealia Banks and can't wait to share my winnings with others who have gone defenseless against lies and dangerous attacks far too long."
So, what is the lawsuit about? Apparently, Ms. Banks saw an article in which Ms. Palin was quoted as saying that African-Americans “liked” slavery. That led to a series of tweets from Ms. Banks, including one that said: “Honestly… Let’s find the biggest burliest blackest negroes and let them run a train on her. Film it and put it on worldstar.” The others were actually more crude.
So it’s easy to see why Ms. Palin is upset. But that begs the question. Could she win a lawsuit over the tweets? I’m thinking no. For starters, Ms. Palin would need to overcome the actual malice standard that applies to public figures. That’s a tough standard in itself. But putting that aside, Banks’s comments would almost certainly be considered “hyperbole” -- so over the top they wouldn’t be expected to be taken seriously.
And to the extent Ms. Palin wants to treat the comments as “threats” she would likely be stymied by The First Amendment. The First Amendment protects abusive, offensive speech, so long as the speech doesn’t constitute a “true threat.” And courts apply a pretty tough standard in that department. A “true threat” is a statement “where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals.” Given the content and format of Ms. Banks’s tweets, it’s hard to imagine a court finding they meet that rigorous standard.
I suspect readers will be split over whether that is a good result or not. I think it is and that has nothing to do with how I feel about Ms. Palin. Public figures are bound to be subjected to harsh rhetoric. It comes with the territory. And they ought not be permitted to sue other than in truly dangerous situations. If First Amendment protections were less rigorous, there’d be a real risk politicians and celebrities could shut down legitimate criticism.
I have a feeling Ms. Palin will not proceed with litigation here. But the unfortunate thing here is that Ms. Banks reacted to a satirical article. Ms. Palin never actually said the things that got Ms. Banks so fired up. Maybe that’s the ultimate lesson here. Make sure you’ve got your facts straight before you take to social media.