Twitter User Unmasking Charlottesville Protesters Runs Libel Risk

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By Melissa Heelan Stanzione

A Twitter user who misidentified two participants in the Charlottesville protests may have opened himself up to potential libel claims, a legal scholar told Bloomberg BNA.

If the participants, mistakenly outed as white supremacists, are not public figures, and if the tweeter was negligent, a libel suit might succeed, Catherine J. Ross, a professor of First Amendment law at the George Washington University Law School, said in an email.

The Twitter user, @YesYoureRacist, urged followers in an Aug. 12 tweet to send the names of participants in clashes between white nationalists and counterprotesters in the picturesque Virginia college town they recognized to him, Bloomberg reported Aug. 14.

At least two people—a YouTube star and a professor—were incorrectly identified as being at the protests, Bloomberg reported. A tweet later apologized to one of them.

If they were falsely portrayed as engaged in illegal conduct or as being Nazis, they could certainly have a libel case, Floyd Abrams, an attorney with Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP, told Bloomberg BNA.

Abram’s practice includes First Amendment issues.

Logan Smith, who runs the @YesYoureRacist handle, told NPR’s “Morning Edition” in an interview Aug. 15, “No matter the risk, I’m not going away.”

Status Matters

The actual libel case would depend on state law and the status of the person wrongly identified, Ross said.

If the tweeter wrongly identified a public figure as a participant in the demonstration—say a politician or celebrity—it would be “much harder for the public figure to prevail,” she said.

The U.S. Supreme Court held in N.Y. Times Co. v. Sullivan that public figures must prove that the defamatory statements were made with actual malice—knowledge that the statements were false.

Non-public figures have to show that a person making an allegedly defamatory statement acted negligently.

Merely Outing OK

On the other hand, suing for merely being identified as a protester won’t work.

If a tweeter correctly identifies individuals who are participating in a protest there are no grounds for a civil suit, Ross said.

Outed protesters don’t have any legal remedies, nor should they, Abrams said.

“When you participate in a public event, you should expect that you might be identified and perhaps criticized,” he said.

Truth would be a complete defense to such a libel suit, Ross said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Melissa Heelan Stanzione in Washington at mstanzione@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at jkamens@bna.com

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