To establish a claim of defamation, the plaintiff must establish that: (1) the defendants made a statement concerning the plaintiff to a third party; (2) that the statement could damage the plaintiff’s reputation in the community; (3) that the defendant was at fault in making the statement; and (4) that the statement either cause the plaintiff economic loss or is actionable without proof of economic loss.
There are several possible defenses to a claim of defamation. Two of the most common are that: (1) the allegedly defamatory statement is true; and (2) that the statement was one of opinion, as opposed to fact. Thus, if you make a negative statement about someone that is true, there can be no liability for defamation. Similarly, if you merely comment about your opinion, as opposed to purporting to make a factual statement, there has been no defamation.
Defamation by Twitter is no different. Comments that are merely expressions of opinion, whether made in person, in the local newspaper’s letter to the editor, or on Twitter, cannot form the basis for a claim of defamation. A federal court in Massachusetts recently explained this idea in Feld v. Conway.
In Feld, the plaintiff brought a claim for defamation based on the defendant’s tweet that the plaintiff was “f-ing crazy.” The comment was made in response to a thoroughbred horse that disappeared after it was supposed to have been shipped to a horse farm in New Jersey. The event was the subject of “great debate” in the thoroughbred race horse community, which included the defendant, Crystal Conway. The tweet at issue was apparently intended to imply that the plaintiff, Feld, was involved somehow with the horse’s disappearance.
The defendant moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the comment was merely opinion and, therefore, could not constitute the basis of a defamation claim. The court agreed. Finding that, when viewed in the context of the online discussion regarding the horse’s disappearance, the comment that the plaintiff was “f-ing crazy” “cannot reasonably be understood to state actual facts about plaintiff’s mental state.” Instead, it was “obviously intended as criticism-that is, as opinion-not as a statement of fact.” As a result, the defamation claim was dismissed.
So, what’s the lesson from this case? Primarily, it’s this: don’t go suing over cheap insults. Comments like the one at issue in the above suit are not comments to be taken seriously. Does that mean that they are not annoying, insulting, and/or distracting? No, of course not. Online attacks, like “real-life” attacks, are not pleasant. But that does not mean that there is a basis to run out and file suit.
It is a different world today, when individuals and entities alike must deal with negative online commentary. But hurt feelings do not a lawsuit make.
Feld v. Conway, No. 13-13122-FDS (D. Mass. Apr. 14, 2014). [H/T to Jay Yurkiw, of Technology Law Source at Porter Wright].