By now, even the novice social media user knows that what you put on the internet can come back to haunt you. Ill-advised posts on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter can result in damaged relationships or even the loss of a job. But can you be sued for something you post on social media? And if you can, will you lose that case? There is now Michigan case law that can give us some guidance on these questions.
In Levitt v. Felton, a lawyer sued a college student over a parody Twitter account operated by the student for the purpose of poking fun at the lawyer. Todd Levitt is an attorney in Mid-Michigan who specializes in criminal defense work. Some of his advertising can mildly be described as “colorful.” Zachary Felton, at the time the lawsuit was filed, was a student at Central Michigan University. Levitt was also an adjunct professor at CMU when the lawsuit was filed.
Apparently inspired by some of Levitt’s own advertising and social media presence, Felton started the Twitter account @levittlawyer. Levitt’s actual Twitter account was @levittlaw. On the parody account, Felton posted several tweets encouraging the use of alcohol and marijuana. One tweet on the parody account read: “Partying=Defense Clients. Defense Clients=Income. If I endorse partying, will my income grow? It’s like a Ponzi scheme for lawyers!” Levitt himself apparently did not see any humor in the parody account and sued Felton for libel, intentional infliction of emotional distress, business defamation, and other claims. Levitt demanded more than $25,000 in damages.
Felton filed a motion for summary disposition, which was granted by Isabella County Circuit Judge Paul H. Chamberlain. In his short opinion he stated that Felton’s Twitter account “cannot reasonably be interpreted as anything other than a parody account.” Under First Amendment case law, parodies are protected Free Speech. Therefore, statements made in context of a parody are protected “when they cannot reasonably be interpreted as stating actual facts about the plaintiff.”
In determining that Felton’s account was obviously a parody, Judge Chamberlain pointed out that the account was entitled “Todd Levitt 2.0,” which indicated that it was a parody. Further, the account contained a disclaimer on its main page stating that it was in fact a parody. Finally, Felton sent out three separate tweets emphasizing the fact that the account was a parody. One of those tweets stated: “Word of the day for @twebbsays is satire. Three syllables. Once you get a grasp of the concept a lot of things will start making sense.”
Since he found that Felton’s Twitter account was obviously a parody account meant to ridicule and satirize Levitt’s marketing, and parodies are protected Free Speech under the First Amendment, Judge Chamberlain granted Felton’s motion for summary disposition and dismissed all Levitt’s claims. For more details, you can read the full opinion here.
This case emphasizes that speech on social media is subject to the same rules and protections as traditional forms of speech. Just because a Twitter parody account makes someone angry, does not mean that person will be able to bring a successful lawsuit. However, if the defendant had not obviously styled the account as a parody, the First Amendment issue may have been less clear. It will be interesting to watch the other social media free speech cases that will doubtless emerge in the near future. For his part, Todd Levitt is not giving up yet, saying he will appeal the ruling.
The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich, PLC have extensive experience in Free Speech issues. We represent clients here in Michigan and all around the country. If you feel you have a Free Speech issue, please do not hesitate to contact us. We would be happy to discuss your matter.