Courtney Love's victory in a Twitter libel suit—dubbed "Twibel"—was affirmed in an unpublished opinion from a California appellate panel.
Love—no stranger to defamation suits based on Twitter activity, having agreed to a $430,000 settlement in a suit against her for calling a fashion designer a prostitute on the social networking site—was sued by her former attorney.
The widow of Kurt Cobain hired Rhonda J. Holmes because she believed that various persons had defrauded her, her daughter, and her husband's estate of millions of dollars. Holmes investigated the allegations for several months and, in April 2009, issued a press release stating that she had been able to "track down" $30 million and would be "filing civil cases" within 30 days.
Thirty days came and went, however, with no action by Holmes. She told Love that her computer had been hacked, she had been accosted in a parking lot, her phone was tapped, and that she had been the victim of credit card fraud. Holmes attributed the events to the press release. Months went by without Love hearing from Holmes. In June 2010, Love commented on Twitter: "I was fucking devastated when Rhonda J. Holmes, Esquire, of San Diego was bought off @FairNewsSpears perhaps you can get a quote."
Love thought the tweet was privately sent to another Twitter user and removed it less than ten minutes later. Holmes sued for defamation. At trial, Love testified that she did not think about the potential harm to the attorney's reputation from the comment because she believed it was true when she wrote it. She told the California state jury she didn't think "someone walked up and handed [Holmes] a bunch of cash," but instead meant that Holmes had been "gotten to" or "compromised" in some manner.
The jury returned a special verdict in which it found that the Twitter statement was false and had a natural tendency to injure Holmes' profession, but that Holmes, who was deemed a public figure for purposes of the law suit, did not prove by clear and convincing evidence that Love knew the statement was false or had serious doubts about the truth of the statement. The court entered judgment in favor of Love and Holmes appealed.
An appellate panel affirmed, rejecting Holmes' argument that Love admitted she did not know whether Holmes had been bribed and that the dictionary definition of "bought off" meant "bribed."
Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Love, "we conclude that there is substantial evidence to support that jury's finding that although [Love's] statement was false and injurious, Holmes failed to establish by clear and convincing evidence that [Love] knew the statement was false or had serious doubts about the truth of the statement." As such, Holmes failed to show that Love acted with actual malice as required when defamation suits are brought by a public figure.
The dictionary definition of "bought off" and Love's lack of knowledge whether Holmes had been bribed to stop representing her did not constitute clear and convincing proof of a knowing falsehood or of reckless disregard for the truth, the panel wrote. Love "firmly believed Holmes had been compromised or 'gotten to' in some manner," the court said. Under the circumstances—Holmes' description to Love of all that had befallen her since the press release was issued followed by months of silence—"it was not reckless for [Love] to believe that Holmes had been induced to stop representing her."
Even if the court assumed that the term "bought off" only meant "bribed," Love's testimony "supports the finding that she in fact believed that Holmes has been pressured to stop representing her," the panel noted, and Holmes presented no evidence to establish that Love in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth of her statement. It was therefore "reasonable for the jury to conclude that by saying that Holmes was bought off, [Love] meant that Holmes had been induced in some manner to stop representing her—whether by consideration or by threat."
To read the decision in Gordon & Holmes v. Love, click here.
Why it matters: The lawsuit is believed to be the first "Twibel" suit to make it to trial (with Love's first alleged Twitter defamation ending in a settlement). The appellate panel agreed with Love that her statement was not made with actual malice given that she sincerely believed that her former attorney had been "bought off," in the sense that she had been compromised or "gotten to," and not simply handed a pile of cash, per the dictionary definition of the term. Even though the tweet was false and could have injured the lawyer's reputation, Love's sincere belief carried the day and the court affirmed judgment in her favor.