Media Law Comes to Twitter

When an NBA referee whistled a foul and the Minnesota Timberwolves coach complained, an Associated Press reporter covering the game sent this tweet:

“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.”

Now, the NBA referee has filed a $75,000 libel lawsuit against the AP reporter.

NBA referee Bill Spooner (US PRESSWIRE)

When established law comes face to face with new media, we have to think deeply about how to apply the law in the new situation. Good law can be applied consistently in almost all situations.

Let’s analyze this case: Libel law protects both truthful statements as well as opinion and fair comment. So if the referee did say this to the coach, then it’s not libel. But if he didn’t say it, then the tweet clearly is a statement of fact rather than opinion, and it could harm the referee’s reputation and perhaps even his livelihood. That’s what libel law protects.

Now let’s say the AP reporter states that he may have misheard the ref, and he’s sorry. If the NBA referee is a limited-purpose public figure (which I think he is as a professional referee), then an apology probably would deflate the lawsuit because public figures must prove “actual malice” — the telling of a deliberate falsehood to cause injury.

From this analysis, the only way the referee could win a libel suit is if a court decided that an NBA official is a private person who must only prove negligence instead of actual malice, that the statement never was made, and that the AP tweet caused the referee real injury. It’s possible, but not likely.

Ironically, if the AP reporter instead had tweeted something like “What an awful officiating job in this game,” that would be a statement of opinion protected under established law.

Explore posts in the same categories: Communications Today, Freedom of Expression, Social Media, Sports

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