Defamation in the digital age


In comments about Empire TV series star Terrance Howard’s history of domestic abuse, Lee Daniels equated Howard’s actions to those of Sean Penn and Marlon Brando. Daniels, filmmaker and creator of Empire, said that Howard, “Ain’t done nothing different than Marlon Brando or Sean Penn, and all of a sudden he’s some ****ing demon.” Penn was not amused and took immediate action, filing a defamation lawsuit and claiming $10 million in damages.

This kind of case is actually fairly “old school” as defamatory cases go these days, occurring, as it did, in print; with the rapid proliferation of outlets for stating one’s opinion in the internet era, the legal landscape around libel and slander has gotten increasingly complicated.

Defamation is a tricky legal concept

First, some clarifications: If you want to successfully sue for defamation, you must prove: 1) a false statement purporting to be fact, 2) publication or communication of that statement, 3) fault, and 4) damages.

Libel (written statements) and slander (spoken statements) both fall under the defamation umbrella.

Defamation is a statement that harms a person’s reputation. As reported by The Washington Post, Penn’s complaint goes to great lengths to demonstrate just “how awesome Sean Penn is.” But aside from being a PR move designed to highlight Penn’s philanthropy in Haiti and laud him, as “one of this generation’s most highly-acclaimed and greatest artists and humanitarians,” the language of the complaint is designed to help meet the legal requirements for a successful defamation suit.

The speed of digital transmission adds complexity

The Penn/Daniels dispute is just one of many current high-profile and complicated lawsuits involving defamation. Each highlights the massive digital landscape where anonymous (or famous) people can transmit defamatory messages across the world in seconds. A 140-character tweet can reach more people than an article in The New York Times, and potentially do just as much damage.

Other newsworthy cases include:

  • Courtney Love’s ‘twible’: In the first of two high profile cases involving her social media accounts, Courtney Love was sued for defamation by her former attorney Rhonda Holmes for comments Love made about Holmes on Twitter. (The second involved a series of lawsuits regarding negative remarks she made about a designer on Twitter, Pinterest and The Howard Stern Show.) Holmes claimed that Love had defamed her in a tweet, which Love claimed she intended as a direct message and immediately deleted when she noticed her mistake. After an eight-day trial, the jury found for Love.
  • Instagram and The Game: Billboard reported in June of 2015 that Jayceon Terrell Taylor, better known as rapper The Game, was ordered to pay more than $200,000 to his former nanny who he blasted in a 2013 Instagram rant. The Game had failed to respond to Karen Monroe’s defamation suit and the court issued a default judgment in Monroe’s favor. Monroe’s lawsuit claimed that, as a result of The Game’s posts, not only was her reputation harmed but also that she lost her job, her ability to get a similar job, received death threats, and suffered from depression.

Non-celebrities defame each other, too

But defamation isn’t just about high-profile celebrities. The Oakland Press reported on a lawsuit filed in Oakland County, Michigan, where the plaintiff (identified as Jane Doe to protect her identity) claimed she was defamed by entries on four separate websites where people “post complaints about extra-marital affairs.”

The websites exist in some of the murkier corners of the Internet, with names like Cheaterville, Bad Boy Report, Cheater Report, and Dating Complaints. One particular user accused her of being a “lying adulterer with an alcohol and drug habit.”

The Internet might provide anonymity for trolls and disgruntled customers, but outright defamation isn’t and shouldn’t be tolerated. Given the fast pace and sheer volume of information on the Internet, however, the courts have their work cut out for them trying to understand an increasingly confusing state of digital affairs.

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