Levi Johnston's Lawyers Threaten Twitter, Despite No Legal Basis

from the the-law?-what's-that? dept

Last week, Conan O'Brien had William Shatner stop by and read what was believed (at the time) to be twitter messages by Levi Johnston, the former boyfriend to Sarah Palin's daughter Bristol (and father of Bristol's child). O'Brien has done this before, having Shatner read out Sarah Palin's twitter messages, as spoken word poetry. It's an amusing gimmick. The only problem this time around was that the tweets weren't actually by Johnston, but an impostor. O'Brien quickly apologized. Fair enough.

However, what caught my attention was that Johnston's lawyers didn't just threaten O'Brien, but they threatened Twitter itself:
"My client, Levi Johnston, is being impersonated on your media (Twitter) and this is leading to libel and slanderous statements being attributed to him. ... We want you to put an immediate end to this illegal activity. ... You are being used as a medium to promote this illegality and we want immediate action. ... You are now on notice and must take steps to put an end to what is clearly against the law and against your policy. ... We want to know what steps you will be taking to correct what is clearly a problem which is escalating."
Now, you can understand why they were upset, and Twitter is usually pretty good at responding to such requests and disabling the accounts (sometimes even going too far). However, the claim that Twitter is now "on notice and must take steps" to end the account is simply not true. Twitter, as the service provider, is protected against such claims and has no specific obligation under the law to change things, no matter how much "notice" his lawyers give. You would think that Johnston's lawyers would understand that -- and that they would be aware of earlier attempts, like the one by Tony La Russa to blame Twitter for an impostor, in which La Russa was forced to learn why Twitter is not liable.

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  1. identicon
    Kevin, 9 Nov 2009 @ 7:22pm

    Not so Fast

    Actually it isn't an open and shut case and there is legal liability to the publisher, and if Twitter is deemed the publisher of the defamatory statements, it can be held liable. To determine if someone is a publisher, you look at editorial control. This will vary by jurisdiction, but some have even said that having word filters (to prevent cursing) may be editorial control making the website, forum, ect... a publisher and liable.

    "Stratton Oakmont v. Prodigy, 1995 -- Stratton Oakmont is an investment banking group based in New York. One one of Prodigy's bulletin boards, MoneyTalk, someone anonymously posted a mesage saying that Stratton engaged in criminal fraud. Stratton Oakmont sued Prodigy claiming that Prodigy was a "publisher" of the MoneyTalk bulletin board and thus was liable for its content. Prodigy said it was only a passive conduit for material posted on its bulletin boards, but the problem was that it used automatic editorial filters for obscene words, and therefore acted as a publisher. The New York federal court said that since Prodigy exercised some editorial control, it was liable as a publisher of the defamatory statements."

    http://www.runet.edu/~wkovarik/class/law/1.5libel.html

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