Defamation on Twitter a.k.a. Tweet Defamation: NBA Referee Files Lawsuit.

March 15th, 2011

Internet defamation is as easy to inflict as hitting the ‘submit’ key.  I am an internet law attorney who sees on-line defamation of character every day. The consequences to the person defamed can be devastating on the one end or a nuisance on the other.  There is no -on-line media as easy, fast and thoughtless to post to as Twitter.com, making defamation on Twitter a big problem for lawyers and clients alike. Recall Courtney Love recently had to pay $430,000 in libel damages for  Twitter defamation settlement with a fashion designer who claimed Courtney defamed her on twitter.com for the tweets “asswipe nasty lying hosebag thief” and a “coke whore.”

No comes the latest claim of defamation on twitter. NBA referee Bill Spooner just filed a federal defamation and libel lawsuit (click link to see the Federal Court Complaint) against Minneapolis-based sportswriter Jon Krawczynski and the Associated Press alleging he was defamed on Twitter during a a game between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Houston Rockets.  The alleged defamatory tweet by Krawczynski states: “Ref Bill Spooner told Rambis he’d “get it back” after a bad call. Then he made an even worse call on Rockets. That’s NBA officiating folks.” Spooner says that the statement quoted in the tweet was a request made by the coach to ‘get it [the foul call] back,’ not promise by Spooner to do so.

See more below. The federal court complaint alleges that Krawczynski erroneously stated that Spooner told Coach Rambis Rambus would get points back to Timberwolves by calling an erroneous foul  on the Houston, essentially suggesting that Spooner would engage in a form of game fixing.

Note the prayer for relief in the defamation complaint.

PRAYER FOR RELIEF.

WHEREFORE, Plaintiff prays for the following relief against both Defendants, and each
of them, jointly and severally, as follows:  A declaratory judgment pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 2201 and 2202, and/or Minn. Stat. 555.01 et seq., declaring that the statement published by Defendants constitutes defamation per se under applicable law; Judgment for compensatory damages in a reasonable amount excess of $75,000; Issuance of a temporary and permanent injunction requiring Defendants to remove, or cause to be made inaccessible to the public, those previously published statements on Twitter.com, and any related publications;  a ruling that Defendants did defame the Plaintiff;  and to require Defendants to publish a retraction of said statement;

This defamation lawsuit faces some big hurdles.  First of all, Spooner may be considered a public figure or limited public figure, thereby requiring proof of malice. Second, the author of the tweet did not actually say that Spooner was engaged in ‘game fixing’ and it is unclear whether people who read the tweet would interpret the post that way. A more reasonable interpretation is likely that sometimes refs make bad calls and, to no ones surprise, ‘make up’ calls are part of the game.

Game fixing is something substantially different, and would involve much more than equalizing fouls. Instead, it would involve trying to create a specific winner or loser through a series of one-sided calls, or a call in the last moments of the game. It may also be hard to find anyone who thinks less of Spooner as a result of the tweet.  Was his reputation really tarnished?  If not, his twitter defamation claim will fail.

On the plus side for this defamation plaintiff, a NBA’s referee’s reputation is important, more important than say a used car salesman or – gasp – lawyer. Further, the recent game fixing scandal in July 2007 wherein National Basketball Association referee Tim Donaghy gambled on 10 to 15 games, including games which he refereed provides context and possible inferences to the alleged defamatory tweets.

Some obvious questions:

  1. Will Rambas feel pressure to support Spooner, the ref?
  2. Will the NBA sue the AP for its reporters suggestion that ‘pay back’ bad calls are part of the NBA game?
  3. Given that pay back calls also happen in the NHL as refs sometimes try to equal up penalties, will defamation lawsuits be filed against me, reporters, coaches or players who make such claims?
  4. Is it true that NBA referees sometimes make up for bad calls, with a quick penalty the other way.

One thing is for sure, http://twitter.com/#!/APkrawczynski aka @APkrawczynski is about to pick up some serious twitter followers to see what he tweets next. He currently stands at 2,108. So far, he is quiet on the twitter front, perhaps on advice of his defamation defense lawyer.