Tweets meant to ridicule and satirize another’s social media presence in a humorous way are parody and thus protected by the First Amendment Right to Free Speech according to a recent opinion issued by the Michigan Court of Appeals (COA).
The Facts in Levittv Felton (No. 326362) are as follows:
Todd Levitt is a lawyer and former adjunct professor at Central Michigan University (CMU). Since students were a primary source of clients for his law firm, he actively marketed on social media including Twitter, representing that he was a “badass lawyer.” He also made several posts referencing marijuana and alcohol use. His Twitter identity for his account, since closed, was “Todd Levitt@levittlawyer.”
In April, 2014, noticed an account “Todd Levitt 2.0 @levittlawyer that included his photo and law firm logo. A CMU student, Zachary Felton, was responsible. In addition to tweeting a disclaimer stating this was a parody account, Felton posted satirical comments such as:
1. What’s the difference between the internet and my tweeted legal advice? A: none. They’re both 100% accurate.
2. Partying=Defense Clients. Defense Clients=Income. If I endorse partying, will my income grow? It’s like a Ponzi scheme for lawyers.
Levitt contended the statements were defamatory and that he lost business and couldn’t continue as a professor at CMU and asked the court to award him damages and an order for the immediate termination of the imposter parody account.
The COA Opinion
Arriving at the decision that the imposter Twitter account was protected speech, the COA reasoned:
1. A statement is defamatory if it tends to lower an individual’s reputation in the community.
2. But, the First Amendment protects statements that include hyberbole as found in satire, parody and cartoons. If such statements could not be interpreted by a reasonable listener to be fact, the are protected.
3. When read in context, the defendant’s tweets are a parody and can’t be reasonably thought to have come from Levitt, a lawyer and a professor.
4. Also, the account was labeled “Todd Levitt 2.0” which is a common term for an upgrade of an existing account and defendant Felton posted several disclaimers even posting Levitt’s Twitter address.
This is just one of the #Twibel (Twitter plus libel) cases. Courtney Love (Jan. 2014) won her case where the California Jury decided she shouldn’t be held liable a tweet directed at her former lawyer. The Jury verdict was upheld by the California Appeal Court. Given the nature of the medium, it is predictable there will be more litigation as time passes.