from the the-64-character-question dept
The Daily, a short-lived, iPad-only "newspaper," may be in the process of setting a defamation land speed record: 64 characters.
The defamation lawsuit, which just survived The Daily's motion to dismiss, revolves around the following statement -- half of a comment tweeted by the plaintiff, New York DJ Rashad Hayes.
I was gonna start shooting in the air, but I decided against it.There's a lot of context surrounding this quote, but it was removed (and recontextualized) by The Daily Holding.
DJ Rashad Hayes was an employee at a club where two recording artists -- Drake and Chris Brown -- participated in a bar brawl over Rihanna, Brown's periodic girlfriend and assault victim. Bottles were thrown. Fists were thrown. And, after it had all died down, Hayes -- who was not at the club that night -- engaged in Twitter discussions about the event, delivering the following tweet as a joke:
I was gonna start shooting in the air, but I decided against it. Too much violence in the hip-hop community.The Daily covered the bar brawl for its iPad subscribers. It decided to use Hayes' tweet to liven up the story. First, it stripped away half the tweet. Then it stripped it of its context, divorcing it completely from some jokey Twitter trash talking between friends and hip hop fans.
Finally -- and most damningly -- it completely recontextualized Hayes' tweet by turning it into a statement made by someone actually present at the club on the night of the brawl.
On June 15, 2012 the Daily posted a news article about the altercation, titled "Ri-Ri's Rumble," which included the following statements:Not only did the iPaper recast a tweet as an eyewitness statement, but it also allegedly made up every other quote from Hayes it included in its article.
" So we're sitting in there. Me, a couple of others, Chris,' eyewitness DJ Rashad Hayes said. Drake comes in and keeps eyeballing the table.'
"Perhaps to show he didn't care that Drake had hooked up with his ex — or to flaunt the fact that he's rekindled his romance with her — Brown sent a bottle to Drake's table. Drake sent it back with a note, a witness told the New York Post. It read, I'm f***ing the love of your life [Rihanna], deal with it.'
"And then things erupted. As rappers Maino and Meek Mill looked on, Brown and Drake's entourages threw bottles and fists throughout the club. I was gonna start shooting in the air but I decided against it,' Hayes said."
Specifically, plaintiff alleges that defendants falsely identified him as a witness who made the statement: "So we're sitting in there. Me, a couple of others, Chris . . . Drake comes in and keeps eyeballing the table," when he never made any such statement to anyone. Plaintiff further alleges that the article implied that he had stated, "I was gonna start shooting in the air but I decided against it" to a reporter in seriousness, when that statement was only a tweet he made in jest. Further, plaintiff alleges that he was not at WIP on the night of the fight and that by failing to publish his full tweet, the Daily changed it from one eschewing violence, to one that made it look as if plaintiff were a "gun-toting psychopath with an itchy trigger finger."Hayes claims the article resulted in him being banned by the club and ended negotiations for a permanent position as a DJ.
The Daily claimed it could not be held liable for publishing Hayes' "own words," even considering the removal of context. It also claimed the quotes it allegedly made up were not libelous.
The court agreed with part of its argument.
With respect to the first alleged defamatory statement (" So we're sitting in there. Me, a couple of others, Chris,' eyewitness DJ Rashad Hayes said. Drake comes in and keeps eyeballing the table.'" [boldface omitted]) and the allegedly fabricated portion of the second statement ("And then things erupted. As rappers Maino and Meek Mill looked on, Brown and Drake's entourages threw bottles and fists throughout the club." [boldface omitted]), neither the language, nor the implication that plaintiff was a witness to the incident, are libelous on their face, meaning that the complained of words are not commonly understood to subject a person to public contempt or ridicule. Stated another way, the import of this statement is innocent on its face since it merely conveys that plaintiff was sitting at a table observing his surroundings; even if false, this statement is not defamatory.As for the "own words" defense, the court says context matters, even when directly quoting someone.
Courts 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. Although it is conceded that defendant accurately quoted plaintiff's own words from Twitter, that does not necessarily mean that the statement could not have produced a worse effect on the mind of a reader than the truth as alleged by plaintiff. 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.To that end, the court denies The Daily's motion to dismiss. Hayes is instructed to enter a "show your math" pleading for special damages -- something more specific than the $3,000,000 he argued he was owed (without support/documentation) in his original complaint.
Even if we were to adopt the "own words" defense, we find that it would not apply here where a comparison of the two statements reveals the potential for them to have different effects on the mind of the reader.
So, the truth/"own words" isn't an infallible defense to defamation accusations. However, the truth in this case wasn't the whole truth. And the "own words" were stripped of their original context and injected into an entirely (and allegedly entirely fabricated) narrative. So, the normal defamation accusation defenses remain solid. The Daily just went out of its way to severely damage its own safety valves.