Twitter Libel Suit Dismissed

January 26th, 2010

In one of the first tests of whether a Tweet can constitute libel, an Illinois trial court dismissed a defamation suit. From (H/T Phil Miles)

Twitter advocates won an early victory last week when a Cook Country, Ill., circuit judge dismissed a defamation suit filed by a Chicago-area real estate management company against a former tenant who tweeted about mold in her apartment. News of the suit went viral on blogs and Twitter as social media users considered the potential ramifications.

Horizon filed suit against Bonnen in July seeking more than $50,000 in damages. The complaint cited a tweet dated May 12 on Bonnen’s Twitter account that read, “Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon realty thinks it’s okay.”

The complaint called the Tweet “false and defamatory.”

Bonnen’s defense team responded that the Tweet in question didn’t meet the Illinois standard for defamation on numerous grounds, including that tweets are considered opinion in the social context and that the message lacked factual context and verifiable facts. The motion to dismiss cited a 2009 study of Twitter in which more than 40% of tweets were found to be “pointless babble.” It noted that many of the other tweets Bonnen wrote at around the same time were clearly opinion or exaggerations.

“When one considers Ms. Bonnen’s allegedly defamatory tweet in the social context and setting in which the statement was published, its nature as rhetorical hyperbole is readily apparent,” the motion said.

Horizon responded that Twitter content isn’t mere drivel, but rather a “legitimate medium used by reporters to report up-to-the-minute updates on legal actions, by rabbis, by people to support specific causes or engage in a certain activity, and as a marketing tool.” The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, uses Twitter to disseminate information, the company argued. Tweets, it said, should be treated no differently than other forms of publication.

This ruling shouldn’t be much of a surprise, but it is noteworthy for its novelty.