Who has the liability in libel?

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Who has the liability in libel?

Oct 24, 2017

Kristin Vartan, Pepperdine student

The written word is powerful because when it is printed and distributed to the masses, becomes informative to the present and a historical text in the future. This is the case in Neiman Marcus v. Lait when the authors of U.S.A. Confidential publish sexually incriminating content about the Dallas Neiman Marcus employees. In the hypothetical situation of PEP's publications on Twitter and Dine's republication in their magazine, the libel is much more impactful. This is because back in 1952 when the Neiman Marcus v. Lait case took place, the internet was not in existence. Written word did not travel as rapidly. In the PEP tweet situation, not only do PEP's twitter followers see the insults to the Margarita Monday staff, but their tweets could get retweeted onto pages with more viewers. In addition, the magazine's audience sees the profanity in print and then on their social media account as well. It's defamation on steroids. While the Dine Magazine picking up the story makes a bad situation worse, the publication is not in the wrong. Mediums like magazines are meant to educate the public on what is happening in their surroundings and are therefore allowed to relay public information. Tweets from public accounts, after all, become public domain, making them up for grabs for news sites. That is the nature of free press in this country. If Dine Magazine had published private information without permission, then PEP would have grounds to sue them. However, this was not the case.

The fault lies with the PEP student who tweeted the profane, untrue information about the Margarita Monday staff. From that perspective, the restaurant has the right to sue the student tweeter from PEP. However, the danger of this would be that PEP as an organization could be sued because the foul language came directly from their account. If I were a student who had lost standing with PeR because of another PEP student's irresponsibility, I would feel put in quite a difficult position. From one perspective, I would want to sue the student tweeter for what they did or encourage the restaurant staff to sue the student so that I could be vindicated. On the flip side, I wouldn't want to bring further attention to the scandal in fear of the entire student organization of PEP being shut down. With the lens of Neiman Marcus v. Lait, the Margarita Monday restaurant would not have a strong case unless specific restaurant staff members were victims of libel, rather than receiving "generalized" insults, as was done in the Neiman Marcus/call girls debacle. Thus, the margarita restaurant would have grounds to sue the student tweeter and PEP as a student organization if the tweets specifically called out restaurant members.

Kristin Vartan, a student in Jon Pfeiffer's Fall 2017 Media Law class at Pepperdine University, wrote the above essay in response to the prompt:

You are an active member of a student organization called PEP and are currently the top candidate to land a position at PeR, a cutting-edge PR firm in Santa Monica, after graduation. Your friend who runs the PEP twitter account hits Margarita Monday too hard and tweets some very racist and sexual things about the restaurant staff. Very scandalous. In the morning, the tweets are picked up by Dine., a magazine that caters to all things food and drink in LA. The story goes viral and people start referring to PEP and its members as racist, sexist bigots. All of a sudden, PeR gives you the cold shoulder. Not only PeR, but also your fall back job, LMYou, shut you down.

Should you sue? Who? Would your case have merit?

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