from the clownboy dept
Last summer, we noted a crazy case in which the famous Hollywood actor James Woods sued a random Twitter troll who had been making fun of Woods. The anonymous troll, who went by the name Abe List, mocked some of Woods’ own nonsensical tweets about Caitlyn Jenner and Planned Parenthood by saying:
“@RealJamesWoods @benshapiro cocaine addict James Woods still sniffing and spouting.”
— Abe List (@abelist) July 15, 2015
As the lawsuit noted, Abe List had also mocked Woods in the past, such as calling him a “clown-boy.” Of course “clown-boy” is not something than a statement of fact and thus can’t be defamation. The real issue is whether or not saying “cocaine addict James Woods” is a statement of fact that is defamatory. Of course, considering that Woods is a public figure, this seemed like a really high bar to cross. With a public figure, the statements need to be made “with actual malice” or a “reckless disregard for the truth.” In other words, it needs to be a case where Abe List knew those things weren’t true, but said them anyway. That seems unlikely here. Oh yeah, and also, hyperbolic statements that are obviously hyperbole are not considered defamation, and this one seemed to qualify.
On top of all that, once Abe List got some lawyers (including Ken “Popehat” White), they pointed out that Woods himself had a rather long history of making similarly hyperbolic statements about people on Twitter. In fact, nearly identical ones:
Abe List made an anti-SLAPP claim in California, which should stop all discovery and hopefully get the case tossed — and things seemed to be going his way. Back in November, Woods’ lawyers tried to move forward in discovering Abe List’s identity but the judge rejected that plan.
Then, earlier this month, there was a hearing, and LA Superior Court judge Mel Recana, appeared to side with Abe List, issuing a 10-page tentative ruling dismissing the case. In that tentative ruling, Judge Recana noted:
The court finds that as a matter of law, in consideration of the totality of the circumstances, the tweet at issue is not a statement of fact but rather “rhetorical hyperbole, vigorous epithets, lusty and imaginative expressions of contempt and language used in a loose figurative sense” that does not support a defamation action…. The tweet cannot be reasonably interpreted as stating actual facts about James Woods. Both tweets were in the context of expressing inflammatory opinions. There was no indicia of reliability as to defendant’s tweets.
That was February 2nd. So, you can imagine basically everyone’s surprise, when less than a week later, Judge Recana released a 1-page final order that says the exact opposite:
As contended by plaintiff: Applying the totality of circumstances test, and examining the plain language of the Tweet, it is clear that any reader of the AL False Statement could and indeed must view it as a statement of fact. As described by Professor Finegan, AL’s use of a prenomial characterization (i.e., “cocaine addict”) followed by a proper noun (i.e., “James Woods”) is a well-established linguistic structure widely used to characterize people with shorthand factual information. Prof. Finegan’s opinion that “many if not all readers of the ‘cocaine addict’ Tweet will understand and interpret Abe List to be making a factual claim about James Woods — namely that he is a cocaine addict’ is on an issue of fact. His opinion is sufficiently beyond common experience and assists the trier of fact.
It’s hard to underscore how surprising and ridiculous this ruling is. Yes, putting a descriptive term in front of a name can be viewed as a factual statement, but the law requires you to put them into context, and here the judge is completely ignoring that, and bizarrely claiming that people literally “must view it as a statement of fact” even though basically no one would do so. It’s also bizarre given the original tentative ruling that a judge would so completely flip positions within a matter of days.
One of Abe List’s lawyers, Lisa Bloom, has put out a statement saying that they will be appealing this ruling:
On Twitter, Mr. Woods enjoys calling strangers “clown,” “rat,” “scum,” and other epithets. Mr. Woods insults gay Americans and immigrants. he brags that he could murder a man whose shirt offends him. He claims a prominent publisher “whacks off” to a picture of a terrorist. When Twitter users challenge him, he tells them to “put down your crack pipe.” He’s mockingly accused at least three other Twitter users of using crack cociane.
Mr. Woods dishes it out, but he can’t take it. When not-famous, not-wealthy John Doe responded to a James Woods slur on Caitlyn Jenner and Planned Parenthood in kind, calling him a cocaine addict, Mr. Woods sued. Mr. Doe’s suggestion that Mr. Woods was on drugs was not meant to be taken literally, just as Mr. Woods’ “put down your crack pipe” and other mocking language was not serious. This is his simple defense.
Twitter is a wide open forum where wisecracks are the norm. It exists not only for the rich and powerful to lambast others, but for all users to express themselves, often colorfully, without fear of being dragged into expensive, stressful litigation. It is frightening to be sued for $10 million by Mr. Woods, but Mr. Doe is fighting back.
Today the Court rejected our request to dismiss the case. We strongly disagree with the denial of the motion, and agree with the Court’s tentative ruling that granted the motion. We look forward to presenting the issues to the Court of appeal. Mr. Doe is resolved to fight this case for as many months or years as it takes.
The statement also notes that Abe List filed some sort of “formal complaint” with Twitter, though the details there are not entirely clear. Either way, what should have been a simple case with a simple dismissal has now gotten a lot more complicated. It may be tempting to mock the judge, but be careful what you say, because apparently he believes that obvious hyperbole must be interpreted as fact if you put the statement in front of someone’s name.