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When A Tweet Leads To Trouble: What Not To Do

January 16, 2011

Celebrities are tweeting their way into trouble.  Courtney Love’s comments about her fashion designer led to a multi-million dollar law suit against her.  Sarah Palin’s tweet ” Don’t retreat, RELOAD” has become the rallying cry against reckless political rhetoric and rightly or wrongly, will always be associated with the tragic massacre in Arizona.    

How can you avoid trouble on the web?

1. Do Not Say Anything Defamatory.

Your tweet can be picked up anywhere in the world and replayed.  Your words can come back and haunt  you.  

In the Courtney Love case, soon coming to trial, Love attacked fashion designer Dawn Simorangkir over  Twitter, her cascade of twits including characterterizing Dawn Simorangkir as a “drug pushing prostitute” who had lost custody of her children.  Because Love had close to 40,000 Twitter followers, Simorangkir claimed that Love’s twits damaged her reputation and her career. 

2.  Do Not Reveal Emotionally Painful Details About Another’s Private Life.

 The tort of intrusion takes place when there is an unreasonable and highly offensive intrusion into one’s private affairs, such as eavesdropping. 

For example, a few weeks ago, Tyler Clementi, an 18-year old Rutgers students committed suicide by jumping off  New York’s George Washington Bridge after two fellow students allegedly filmed him having sex with another man, posting the sex scene live on the web.  The two who posted the video, Clementi’s roommate, Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, a friend of Ravi’s, were arrested on a criminal charge of invasion of privacy and face  five years in prison if convincted.  If Clementi’s family chooses to do so, they may also pursue a civil case for invasion of privacy,  wrongful death, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.,people,news,gay-student-suicide-after-sex-video-posted-on-web-tyler-clementi-dharun-ravi-molly-wei#ixzz1B9imMPKu

3.  Please Do Not Share  Private Photos on Cell Phones or on the Web.

Spring break, weeks before she was to graduate from Sycamore High,  Jessica Logan and two friends took nude photos on their cell phones and sent them to Ryan Saylers.  He sent the pictures to four others, and within weeks, the photos had reached a wide circulation to students across her school, and to even  Loveland High, Moeller High, Sycamore High and Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy.   Jessica was  mocked, harassed, and a month later, hung herself in her bathroom.  The grieving parents  sued the school, the authorities, and the children who ignored their pleas to take the photo out of circulation and to stop the taunting for negligence  and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

4. Do Not Cross the Line From Insults to False Allegations

Opinion or rhetoric is not libelous. But a statement can easily cross the line from an insult to a factual allegation, in layman’s terms, a “lie.”  For example, in a law suit brought by Vogue cover girl  model  Liskula Cohen,  the New York Court  ruled that the blogger of “Skanks in NYC”  had potentially defamed Cohen because the “thrust of the blog is that [she] is a sexually promiscuous woman.”


The rules in the cyberuniverse are not very different from the playground.  Play nice.  Be kind.  And you can tweet to your heart’s delight.

Please do know that even if posting an insult or violent rhetoric is not defamation, it is still not nice.   As unkind words travel so quickly and to so many, including to the unhinged and the cruel, please think before you tweet.  Trouble comes in many ways.  The First Amendment  protects Sara Palin from the legal consequences of placing Ms. Gifford on a cross-hairs target map.  But it will not shield Ms. Palin from the political consequences.  Words matter.  So please be kind and follow the “Golden Rule” in your dealings with others on the web.  

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