In July 2015, renowned film and television actor James Woods filed a $10 million defamation lawsuit against anonymous Twitter user “Abe List,” alleging that Abe List falsely accused Woods of being a cocaine addict. The statement, which Woods alleges was potentially disseminated to hundreds of thousands of Twitter and Internet users, read “cocaine addict James Woods still sniffing and spouting.” Although Woods accused Abe List of intentionally seeking to damage his reputation, Abe List characterized his statement not as one of provable fact, but “a constitutionally protected political insult” that is “part of Twitter’s culture of political hyperbole.”
As discussed in an earlier post, a unique challenge that “Twibel” plaintiffs like Woods face in circumstances where the poster chooses to remain anonymous is to identify the speaker who they wish to sue. Woods took a major step forward in his bid to unmask Abe List through discovery last week, when Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mel Recana denied Abe List’s motion to strike under California’s law prohibiting Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (“SLAPP”). First enacted in 1992, the anti-SLAPP statute provides for a special motion to strike a lawsuit where the complaint arises from the exercise of one’s rights of petition and/or free speech.
In evaluating Abe List’s anti-SLAPP motion, Judge Recana considered (1) whether Abe List demonstrated that Woods’ lawsuit arose from Abe List’s acts in furtherance of his constitutional rights of petition or free speech; and (2) whether Woods established that there is a probability that he will prevail on his defamation claim. Ultimately, Judge Recana concluded that that Abe List had carried his burden to show that Woods’ lawsuit arose from Abe List’s exercise of his free speech rights, but that Woods had met his burden of showing a probability of prevailing on the merits.
Judge Recana’s decision as to Woods’ likelihood of success was based upon the declaration of a linguist, who expressed the opinion that readers of Abe List’s tweet would interpret Abe List to be making a factual claim about Woods – i.e., that he is a cocaine addict. The Court found, therefore, that “[a]pplying the totality of circumstances test, and examining the plain language of the [t]weet, it is clear that any reader of [Abe List’s tweet] could and indeed must view it as a statement of fact” (emphasis in original). Accordingly, the Court denied Abe List’s anti-SLAPP motion. Abe List’s attorneys have indicated that their client intends to appeal Judge Recana’s ruling. Drye Wit will keep you posted on further developments in the case. In the meantime, you can find additional discussion of Woods’ lawsuit and “Twibel” law here and here.