Could anything good possibly come out of a fight between the entourages of rappers Chris Brown and Drake? Probably not. And one of the negative consequences is a lawsuit arising from the republication of a tweet describing the event.
Some context is in order. Back in June of 2012, rappers Chris Brown and Drake and their entourages were allegedly involved in a fight at a Manhattan nightclub called WIP. The plaintiff is a DJ named Rashad Hayes, who occasionally worked at the club.
On the night in question, Drake came into the club. Drake had apparently had a fling with Brown’s girlfriend Rhianna (you have not stumbled onto People Magazine, I promise). But apparently believing that he and Rhianna had patched things up, Brown sent a bottle to Drake’s table. Drake sent the bottle back, with a very gracious note, saying “I’m f***ing the love of your life, deal with it.” That got things going and apparently the respective entourages started throwing bottles and punches throughout the club.
Rashad was not at the club that night, but read tweets about the event. In the chain of responses, Rashad tweeted this comment: “I was gonna start shooting in the air but I decided against it. Too much violence in the hip hop community.” An online publication called “the Daily” ran a column about the events and quoted Rashad as having said “I was gonna start shooting in the air, but decided against it.”
Rashad filed a libel suit, claiming the Daily piece falsely identified him as a witness to the events and as a “gun toting psychopath” at that. According to Rashad, by failing to incorporate the context of the Twitter exchange, and by cutting off the “too much violence in the hip hop community” the Daily portrayed Rashad’s joke as a statement of fact. Rashad claims he lost his job at WIP immediately after the article ran and missed out on other opportunities.
The Daily moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing the “own words” defense precluded the suit. The “own words” defense simply provides that a plaintiff cannot base a libel claim on a quotation the plaintiff himself uttered. Here, the quote came from Rashad’s own tweet, which would suggest the “own words” defense applied. But the court disagreed.
In the court’s view, the key question is the effect the publication would have on the reader. As the opinion noted, “[c]ourts typically compare the complained of language with the alleged truth to determine whether the truth would have a different effect on the mind of the average reader... 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 court denied the motion to dismiss, meaning the case may now proceed. Given the serial nature of many social media exchanges, publishers need to consider context before pulling an isolated quote. The lesson here is that merely transcribing the words accurately doesn’t mean the quote is accurate. Context is king.