On Sunday morning, Maj. Max Geron tweeted from his official Dallas Police Department Twitter account, @MaxDPD, that NFL cornerback Aqib Talib had been arrested for throwing bottles and causing a disturbance at a Dallas club.
The tweet about the 1:45 a.m. arrest was later retweeted by the Department’s verified @DallasPD account at 9:53 a.m. Maj. Geron followed his original tweets with a couple posts detailing the arrest, led with the hashtag “#BREAKING.” Needless to say, on an otherwise uneventful Sunday morning, the news spread quickly.
But it was Talib’s older brother, Yaqub Talib, that had actually been taken into custody by the Dallas Police Department.
According to this report from CBSSports.com, about 10 hours had gone by since the arrest (and two hours after the @DallasPD retweet) when Maj. Geron tweeted: “#BREAKING CORRECTION – Yaqub Talib 31yrs old was arrested. My apologies to Aqib Talib. Original information reported was incorrect.”
The tweets have since be deleted and the Dallas Police Department issued an apology.
Reputational impact of false information
In March, Talib signed a six-year contract with the Denver Broncos for $57 million, with $26 million guaranteed. So, clearly, Talib is not like most of us, and his reputation has been or will be affected differently by this false report (not to mention he does not have a squeaky clean record either).
Several weeks ago, we wrote about the problems associated with improper arrests – putting aside for the moment that the seventh-year player was not actually arrested. In that post, we discussed how improper arrests can reach the media and spread widely across the internet and become a part of the arrestees’ public records. With most people, this can impact their reputations when seeking new employment, as the power of Google and other search engines can convey false or misleading information to potential employers.
Although Talib was not arrested and he certainly did have the benefit of subsequent widespread media attention about him not being arrested, he still could decide to bring a defamation suit against the Dallas Police Department and Maj. Geron.
Bringing a defamation suit
According to Texas Law, bringing a defamation claim requires that a defamatory statement has been published (Twitter would count), it must have been defamatory concerning the plaintiff, and the defendant(s) must have acted with the requisite degree of fault – actual malice or negligence – regarding the truth of the statement.
Talib, a 2013 Pro Bowl cornerback, is clearly a public figure, meaning he would need to prove actual malice. In other words, Talib would need to show Maj. Geron knew his tweets were false, or that Maj. Geron recklessly disregarded their falsity.
In all likelihood, Talib will not pursue such a claim, but if he does and could get past the “actual malice” hurdle, the case would likely turn on the issue of proving damages – something we have yet to see play out in American courts with respect to tweets. In January, musician Courtney Love received a defense verdict in what was believed to be the first U.S. defamation suit about content posted on Twitter, but the issue of damages was not addressed.
According to 2011 Dallas Court of Appeals case Main v. Royall, statements are considered “per se” defamatory – and damages may be presumed without proof of injury – if, among other things, they “unambiguously charge a crime.”
Social media blunder
Legal issues aside, the Dallas Police Department perspective of this is yet another lesson in how not to perform on social media – with the added element that this was the police. Journalists and bloggers often catch flack for not fully investigating a story, but this is the police department of one of the largest cities in the United States.
Without following @DallasPD or @MaxDPD on Twitter, it is uncertain to what extent they tweet about other arrests. But it would seem that tweeting details about an NFL player’s arrest (and using hashtags such as #BREAKING and #NFL) was largely about garnering attention.
Talib may have “picked off” quarterbacks 23 times in his first six seasons with Tampa Bay and New England. But it was the Dallas Police Department’s interception of the first-year Denver Bronco’s brother that (wrongfully) placed Talib in the headlines this past weekend.