VANCOUVER – An inflammatory tweet that appeared on TSN has served as a reminder that while social media may appear to be a lawless land filled with snark, vitriol and half-truths, it’s also subject to the same scrutiny – and libel laws – as newspapers or television.
And, legal experts say, public figures are becoming increasingly savvy about shutting down the online rumour mill.
TSN apologized earlier this week after a tweet from a fan about Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf, his wife Elisha Cuthbert and forward Joffrey Lupul ran on a live crawl at the bottom of the screen during Monday’s NHL trade deadline show.
The apology followed a legal threat from a lawyer representing Phaneuf, Cuthbert and Lupul.
“That’s the main goal: you want to just end the story,” said the trio’s lawyer, Peter Gall. “There’s just no truth to it.”
Gall threatened legal action this week against the network and the tweeter, Anthony Adragna.
The network said the tweet was broadcast despite protocols to prevent inappropriate social media posts from making it to air, though they haven’t explained how the offending post made it onto live TV. TSN has said it will no longer air public tweets during live coverage.
Gall said Phaneuf and Cuthbert had grown familiar with “outrageous” false statements being made about them online, but seeing them broadcast on TSN was the final straw.
“You can’t sue everybody who says something to you for defamation, but there reaches a point where you just have to do something. That point was reached once it was re-published on TSN,” he said.
While TSN already apologized, Gall said he’s hopeful he will also reach a resolution with Adragna’s lawyer soon. Adragna did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Twitter, but he has since deleted the post.
Defamation lawyer Peter Downard stressed that the same libel test applies everywhere, even on Twitter. If a reasonable person could consider a statement to be damaging to another’s reputation, then it can be the subject of a defamation lawsuit.
Downard said a defamation lawsuit can be successful whether a tweet is seen by 100 people or 1 million, though he added that the amount of damages awarded would likely be smaller if the audience is smaller.
“People have to understand that when they are publishing on the Internet, through whatever type of Internet communication, they’re publishing to the world at large,” he said.
“They can hurt people and they can be held responsible for that. It’s not the Wild West. It’s not a situation where they can act with impunity.”
Downard said defamation cases involving tweets were not rare at this point, as he had been involved in several. But he said most tend to be resolved outside the court system, with an apology or removal of the offending material.
Two years ago, former Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke sued 18 anonymous online commenters for defamation over allegations of an affair with Rogers Sportsnet sports reporter Hazel Mae. He has since tracked some of the commenters down.
Burke was also represented by Gall, who said the goal was the same: the stop the rumours from spreading.
A ruling this week would appear to point to some latitude being given to Internet comments. A judge ruled that while Ottawa blogger Dr. Dawg was defamed on a conservative message board, the statements fell within the bounds of fair comment.
Madam Justice Heidi Polowin dismissed the blogger’s legal claim, noting debate in the blogosphere can be “rude,” “aggressive,” and “sarcastic,” The judge said fair comment should be given a broad interpretation in such a context.
But Vancouver-based defamation lawyer Roger McConchie said the ruling shouldn’t be taken as a get-out-of-jail-free card for online defamation.
He said every libel case is unique. While a judge will always consider context, the circumstances of a Twitter comment are unlikely to be identical to the message boards in the Dr. Dawg case, especially given the 140-character limit.
“The fact that there’s a lot of insane libelling going on on the Internet isn’t a defence if somebody who is targeted by your tweet decides to take you on in court,” he said.
“You can’t say, ‘Well, there are a thousand other people publishing a thousand other defamatory tweets every hour.’ That isn’t going to be a defence.”