Tweeting May Give Rise to SLAPPs

Just as the Internet has opened doors for a whole new level of citizen engagement and participation, the social networking tool Twitter is allowing for increased and easier communication between groups of people.

But, just as Bloggers and others who engage in Internet speech are at risk of meritless SLAPPs arising from that speech, some tweeters may face litigation, or the threat of litigation, even when the speech concerns a matter of public interest. The New York Times profiled some attention-grabbing tweets in an article this week. While defamatory tweets do not warrant First Amendment protection, those public interest messages that are communicated over Twitter are important to the public good, and should be protected.

For example, in July 2009, the former tenant of a Chicago apartment complex who is involved in a class action lawsuit against the apartment property management company for violations of Chicago Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinances, sent a tweet to her network of twenty people, commenting: “Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon realty thinks it’s OK.” Based on the comment, the realty company sued her for defamation, alleging $50,000 in damages, in Illinois state court. When asked about the lawsuit, Jeffrey Michael, whose family runs the real-estate management company that filed suit said: “We’re a sue first, ask questions later kind of an organization,” before apologizing later for the statement. See Horizon Group Management, LLC v. Bonnen, No. 2009L008675. The complaint is available here.

The Citizen Participation Act would protect tweet-speech about issues of health, safety and other public issues, encouraging the free flow of information among an active and engaged citizenry.

Update: The Illinois court has dismissed the lawsuit against Bonnen, saying her tweets were too vague to constitute libel.

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