Those who watch “defamation by twitter” cases know that very few go to trial and to date none have made it to the level of appellate review. A new case, however, has court watchers hoping for some decision, and ultimately guidance on whether defamation via social media requires legal treatment of a nature different than the garden-variety brick and mortar type of tort. The case, Soul Circus v. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) (filed N.D. Georgia March 6, 2013) concerns a tweet by PETA claiming that “SCI [Soul Circus] does not care about the treatment, health, or wellbeing of its animals.” The tweet, and a similar posting on the PETA Facebook site, was accompanied by an elephant, purportedly the Elephant Nosey, who appears in Soul Circus, chained to a fenced in area. The posts received over 100,000 comments. The same claim originally appeared on the PETA website.
Soul Circus is suing PETA for defamation, tortious interference and false light. The case seems fairly straight forward. Assuming Soul Circus can prove damages and that PETA cannot use the defense of truth, the circus should succeed in its claim.
Arguably, it is hard to defame in 140 characters, although here the direct allegation of animal cruelty seems straight forward enough to prove the elements of defamation, without innuendo. However, even so, it seems to me that the question of damages is a big issue. The traditional rule where defamation is concerned is that a defendant only commits one count of libel regardless of the number of rebroadcasts of a particular defamatory statement. Given the proliferation of social media, should the rule change and if so should a damage reward reflect that?