Is It Defamation to Retweet Something Defamatory?
Late last year, the United States Court in the Eastern District of NY issued a decisionRoslyn La Liberte vs. Joy Reid, 1:18-CV-05398 (EDNY). dismissing a defamation claim against popular and controversial MSNBC host Joy Reid. The question posed to the court in Roslyn La Liberte v. Joy Reid was whether Reid had defamed the plaintiff when she retweeted content about La Liberte. The Court issued standard dismissals of defamation claims, but also rejected Reid’s Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) defense and applied California’s anti-SLAPP statute to award Reid her attorneys’ fees and costs.
At the center of the case was a photo of La Liberte, seen in a MAGA hat and yelling at a high school student during a City Council meeting for a highly politicized senate bill, intended to limit local law enforcement’s cooperation with federal immigration authorities. A few days after the photo was taken, an activist named Alan Vargas tweeted the image and suggested that La Liberte was yelling: “You are going to be the first deported . . . dirty Mexican.” Reid retweeted the photograph along with a caption stating:
“He showed up to rally to defend immigrants . . . She showed up too, in her MAGA hat, and screamed, “You are going to be the first deported” . . . “dirty Mexican!” He is 14 years old. She is an adult. Make the picture black and white and it could be the 1950s and the desegregation of a school. Hate is real, y’all. It hasn’t even really gone away.”
Reid’s caption, it turned out, was inaccurate. The boy was later interviewed on a local TV station, where he stated that La Liberte had kept the conversation civil. After this interview aired, La Liberte’s son sent two emails to Reid advising her that her social media post was inaccurate and forwarded her a link to the interview. Despite this, Reid not only refused to retract her statement, she doubled-down, posting the photo again, this time alongside a photograph of protestors in Little Rock, Arkansas from 1957 with the caption:
It was inevitable that this image would be made. It’s also easy to look at old black and white photos and think: I can’t believe that person screaming at a child, with their face twisted in rage, is real. B[ut] everyone one of them were. History sometimes repeats. And it is full of rage. Hat tip to @joseiswriting. #regram #history #chooselove.
La Liberte sued Reid, claiming her posts were defamatory.
Reid’s first defense under the CDA was rejected. Section 230 of the CDA47 U.S. Code § 230.Protection for private blocking and screening of offensive material. provides that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information provider.” This section generally limits defamation liability for re-tweets or re-posts in our digital era. Here, however, the New York court ruled that Section 230 did not bar La Liberte’s claims because Reid had allegedly “altered” the original posts, making her an information content provider and not subject to Section 230 of the CDA.
Despite this, Reid ultimately prevailed with an argument that the plaintiff’s defamation claim failed because she could not show that Reid acted with actual malice, a standard that was only applied because Reid successfully argued that La Liebrte qualified as a “limited public figure”. The court found that because La Liberte had attended multiple city council meetings and spoken about the bill publicly, and because she had appeared in a photograph in the Washington Post that included a story about the controversy, she had injected herself into a public controversy and had therefore become a limited public figure. As a public figure, La Liberte was required to show that Reid acted with actual malice, which requires a plaintiff to establish that the defamatory statements were made with the knowledge of their falsity or with reckless disregard of their truth or falsity.
The Court found no evidence that Reid had knowledge of or acted with reckless disregard of the truth or falsity of the matters stated, despite the fact that the second post was written after Reid received emails from La Liberte’s son. The Court declared it a non-actionable opinion and held that La Liberte did not allege the factual statements necessary to underlie a viable defamation claim. After conducting an analysis on the application of the California anti-SLAPP statute in federal court, the court not only dismissed La Liberte’s claims under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure; it also found that it could strike the suit under the anti-SLAPP statute, paving the way for Reid to recover attorneys’ fees.
Nevertheless, despite resulting in a mixed bag of findings in the realm of defamation lawsuits, the takeaway is clear. By doing what so many do — adding her own commentary to a viral topic — Reid ventured territory outside the protection of Section 230 of the CDA and placed her square in the crosshairs of liability for a defamation claim. That she ultimately prevailed through other arguments hardly dilutes the importance of the legal lesson to be learned here: think before you (re)tweet.