James Woods has defied skeptics and gotten past an initial First Amendment hurdle in his provocative defamation lawsuit against an anonymous Twitter user who suggested he was a “cocaine addict.”
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mel Recana has reviewed Woods’ complaint against a “John Doe,” as well as the defendant’s motion to strike, and has decided to let the case proceed. As a result, despite Twitter’s own resistance to discovery demands in this case, Woods will likely be given the green light to unmask the user known as “Abe List,” whose social media profile identified him as a Harvard-educated partner at an L.A.-based private equity firm.
Woods sued for $10 million last July with word that “AL, and anyone else using social media to propagate lies and do harm, should take note. They are not impervious to the law.”
The actor, a well-known conservative, has used Twitter to make unflattering comments about Barack Obama, Caitlyn Jenner and others.
This has prompted strong reaction from Woods’ followers, especially Abe List, who replied on one occasion, “cocaine addict James Woods still sniffing and spouting,” and on another, “you are a ridiculous scum clown-boy James, a joke.”
Woods’ lawsuit complains that these messages were seen by “thousands of AL’s followers and hundreds of thousands of Mr. Woods’ followers” and were “the culmination of a malicious online campaign by AL to discredit and damage Woods’ reputation.”
The defendant reacted to Woods’ lawsuit by opposing any immediate discovery and bringing a motion to strike that’s premised on California’s anti-SLAPP statute, meant to deter injuries to one’s First Amendment rights at an early stage.
In controversies over speech on a matter of public interest, a judge is directed to weigh whether the plaintiff has a likelihood of prevailing before moving the case any further. Here, the anonymous defendant argued that his tweet was “a constitutionally protected political insult,” the type made routinely by Woods as “a well-known part of Twitter’s culture of political hyperbole.”
In other words, the statement at issue was said not to be a provable fact.
Even Twitter sided with Abe List. “The speech at issue appears to be opinion and hyperbole rather than a statement of fact,” wrote one of its attorneys in response to a subpoena. “Attempts to unmask anonymous online speakers in the absence of a prima facie defamation claim are improper and would chill the First Amendment rights of speakers who use Twitter’s platform to express their thoughts and ideas instantly and publicly, without barriers.”
In opposing the motion to strike, Woods’ lawyer submitted a declaration from a linguist who concluded that most readers of “cocaine addict” would understand and interpret it to be a factual claim. The opposition also pointed to a Pew study that found that 63 percent of Twitter users say the platform serves as a source for news, and argued, “While conversations on Twitter can (and do) include opinion, jokes and hyperbole, it cannot be ignored that people believe what they read on Twitter.”
A hearing was held on this topic on Feb. 2, and there, Judge Recana issued a tentative ruling indicating he was going to grant the motion to strike and dismiss the lawsuit.
But now, in a stunning reversal — and one that could set important precedent about how to read social media communications if it goes up on appeal — the judge has just issued an order denying the motion to strike.
Recana’s short ruling was just issued, and even the attorneys in the case were caught off guard by the decision.
According to a copy reviewed by The Hollywood Reporter, the judge writes, “Applying the totality of circumstances test, and examining the plain language of the Tweet, it is clear that any reader of the AL False Statement could and indeed must view it as a statement of fact. As described by Professor Finegan, AL’s use of a prenomial characterization (i.e. ‘cocaine addict’) followed by a proper noun (i.e., ‘James Woods’) is a well-established linguistic structure widely used to characterize people with shorthand factual information. Prof. Finegan’s opinion that ‘many if not all readers of the “cocaine addict” Tweet will understand and interpret Abe List to be making a factual claim about James Woods — namely that he is a cocaine addict’ is on an issue of fact. His opinion is sufficiently beyond common experience and assists the trier of fact.”
What this means is that the case will continue with discovery likely proceeding to not only identify the defendant, but also examine his state of mind when making his tweet. As a public figure, Woods will need to show knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth. The lawsuit isn’t without risks for the actor. There will also probably be an examination whether there was any truth to the “cocaine addict” statement.
“The cruelty of having one’s reputation sullied by an anonymous coward is agonizing,” says Woods, represented by Michael Weinsten at Lavely & Singer. “My faith in the integrity of the court and the brilliance of my attorneys is vindicated by this victory. I am deeply grateful to Judge Recana for his studious deliberation and wisdom in this case of wanton defamation. Twitter users beware: you are not above the law.”
Lisa Bloom, attorney for the defendant, said she disagreed with the decision. She adds, “We look forward to presenting the issues to the Court of Appeal. Mr. Doe is resolved to fight this case for as many months or years as it takes.”