WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — Actor James Woods has filed a $10 million lawsuit against a Twitter user who called him a cocaine addict, but experts say legal action over online comments can be a hard way to seek justice.
Woods filed a defamation suit in Los Angeles County Superior Court Wednesday against “a cowardly individual who hides behind the Twitter name ‘Abe List’ to falsely accuse and humiliate others who dare to harbor opinions different from his own,” according to the complaint.
The suit alleges “a malicious online campaign” since at least December 2014 that included calling Woods a “joke,” “ridiculous,” “scum,” and “clown-boy.” Then in response to a tweet Woods posted on July 15 comparing media coverage of Caitlin Jenner and secretly recorded videos of Planned Parenthood officials, Abe List--whose account has since been deactivated--allegedly tweeted, “cocaine addict James Woods still sniffing and spouting.”
“Woods is not now, nor has he ever been, a cocaine addict, and AL had no reason believe otherwise,” the suit states. Claiming the tweet defamed him and “jeopardized James Woods’ good name and reputation on an international scale,” the actor--whose character on the CBS legal drama "Shark" believed "trail is war, second place is death"--is seeking in excess of $10 million in damages.
Woods and other plaintiffs seeking legal recourse against anonymous internet trolls face an uphill battle, particularly in California, experts say.
According to Evan Mascagni, policy director for the Public Participation Project, such lawsuits often fall under the category of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP), legal actions without significant merit brought with the intent to silence an opponent or divert their resources.
Laws governing SLAPP cases vary by state, and some have none at all--something Mascagni’s organization is trying to change--but California has some of the toughest anti-SLAPP protections in the country. If a defendant files an anti-SLAPP motion there and the court agrees it is a SLAPP case, Mascagni said the suit can be dismissed and the plaintiff may have to pay the defendant’s attorney fees.
“It’s important to know that you’re not free to go out and say whatever you want whenever you want,” Mascagni cautioned. Some online defamation suits have merit and will survive an anti-SLAPP motion.
He said courts have established a distinction between facts and opinions expressed online, and opinions are clearly protected. If you make a factual allegation that can be proven or disproven, however, “you have to be able to back that up with evidence.”
This may be why Woods’ defamation claim is based specifically on the “cocaine addict” statement, rather than the “ridiculous scum clown-boy” insult.
Even if a plaintiff is able to disprove the false statement, there are still many other hurdles to clear, according to Eric Goldman, professor at Santa Clara University School of Law and co-director of the High Tech Law Institute.
“Bringing a lawsuit is almost always the worst idea” for a public figure facing a negative online comment or review, he said. There are a lot of reasons for that, but he highlighted three issues.
“It’s not always easy to find the person who made the postThat can be a show-stopper,” he noted.
Woods’ suit is filed against “John Doe aka ‘Abe List,’” and he may need to seek a court order to compel Twitter to reveal the user’s identity, which either Twitter or the user could then contest.
If the anonymous user can be identified, the second challenge is that “it’s really tricky to win the lawsuits even with the best of facts,” Goldman said. Courts have found that people reading information online are “inherently more dubious” than print readers, which makes it difficult for a defamation plaintiff to prove that readers would believe the false statement was true.
“It’s harder for celebrities to win their defamation cases,” he said, because public figures need to prove the poster had actual malice, meaning they knew the statement was false or said it with reckless disregard for its accuracy.
The third issue for such a suit is known as “the Streisand effect,” the fact that suing someone over content you don’t want people to see generally draws much more attention than the content itself.
“It’s a catch-22,” Goldman said. “Do you ignore the problemor do you sue over the problem and actually give it much more visibility?”
However, he stressed this does not mean a celebrity cannot win an online defamation suit. Even if the defendant claims the false statement was not meant to be taken literally, “simply saying it was a joke is not enough.”
While there is no federal anti-SLAPP protection at this time—a bill was recently introduced in the House that Mascagni is optimistic will be passed—federal law does protect the sites that comments and reviews are posted on, like Twitter and Yelp.
However, just because they are not liable for the content, Mascagni said that does not prevent plaintiffs from naming the companies in a suit and forcing them to spend money defending themselves.
That is one way cases over online comments differ from defamation suits against publications, Goldman said. A newspaper or magazine can be liable for whatever they print, and they often have enough money to pay damages if they lose.
This would distinguish Woods' suit from, for example, actor Ben Affleck's current threats of legal action against Us Weekly magazine over a story claiming that he had an affair with his children's nanny.
Even if a plaintiff identifies the poster and wins an internet defamation suit, Goldman said many users in online forums may turn out to be “judgment-proof.”
“You can get a judgment against them, but you’ll never get the cash associated with that judgment” because the people do not have it.
For a celebrity, he said, working with a public relations professional to counter the false statement or using other resources to improve your image is almost always better than a lawsuit.
With over 100 online news stories already written about the lawsuit, more people will likely hear the allegation that Woods is a “cocaine addict” than Woods’ 240,000 Twitter followers who saw the original post.
“If you don’t want the media coverage, you just gotta let it go,” Goldman said.