Defamation occurs when falsities are asserted as facts, and when that assertion hurts an individual’s or business’ reputation. A tweet about the management company being a bunch of morons, Brown explains, would be protected speech; the sentence can’t be proved true or false, since it’s based on someone’s opinion. But a statement about mold in an apartment isn’t up for debate; the mold exists or it doesn’t.
By Steve Heisler
July 28, 2009
A lawsuit filed today for allegedly defamatory remarks shared on Twitter could hold more weight than one might think. Amanda Bonnen, a former resident of an apartment at 4242 N. Sheridan Rd., posted in May a single 140-character tweet about that building’s management company, Horizon Realty Group: “You should just come anyway. Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon realty thinks it’s okay.” She has 20 followers (or at least she did before her account disappeared), and it was an @ reply, so theoretically, not many people were going to see it. All of that changed today when Horizon Realty responded to the tweet with a lawsuit, suing Bonnen for “maliciously and wrongfully publish[ing] the false and defamatory tweet on Twitter, thereby allowing the tweet to be distributed throughout the world.” And thus Horizon created a news story that strengthened these allegations by causing the tweet to be republished again and again long after the tweet itself was gone.
This is Chicago’s first Twitter-related case, according to Evan Brown, an intellectual property and technology lawyer with local firm Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP. He says Horizon might have a case. All it has to do is prove a defamatory statement was published, adding, “In defamation law, publication has a special meaning—all it means is that words were uttered, or made available to someone else.” Even just one person, and regardless of the medium (blogs, IM conversation, real-life conversation). “It’s not enough for the defendant to say, ‘I was on Twitter’… It is a tool through which a person can defame another.”
Defamation occurs when falsities are asserted as facts, and when that assertion hurts an individual’s or business’ reputation. A tweet about the management company being a bunch of morons, Brown explains, would be protected speech; the sentence can’t be proved true or false, since it’s based on someone’s opinion. But a statement about mold in an apartment isn’t up for debate; the mold exists or it doesn’t. “No reasonable person would think her assertion of mold is mere opinion,” Brown says. “It’s an assertion of fact, 140 characters or not.”
Not much is known right now from Bonnen’s perspective: Her Twitter account and Facebook pages appear to be shut down, and she couldn’t be reached for comment. Though a call to Horizon was not returned, the company released a statement at 5:30 p.m. via e-mail, attributed to Jeffrey Michael. It outlines a few events that preceded the lawsuit, including a statement that Bonnen’s building experienced leaking because of roof repairs in March 2009. The statement says no mold was found when Bonnen moved out June 30, but that a class-action lawsuit had been filed against Horizon one week prior to her moving out. Michael says he found the tweet while preparing for this case.
Michael told the Chicago Sun-Times, “We’re a sue first, ask questions later kind of an organization” but later redacted this in his statement. For the suit to find solid ground, Horizon will have to prove that no mold was present and that it negatively affected the opinions of the message’s recipients—whose scope may have grown exponentially today. “The plaintiff should consider, in depth, how much attention they want to draw by filing this lawsuit,” he says. “Given a few retweets, on a good say at most 100 people probably saw the original tweet. No one pays attention to a tweet more than a day old; but now there’s this lawsuit, so it’s seen by maybe thousands. It would have just been ephemera otherwise.”