United States: Courtney Love, Yelp And Internet Libel: Nevermind, It’s Not A Trend

Courtney Love performs at a 2013 concert in New York. She recently faced a libel suit over a social media post she made about her former attorney.

Courtney Love goes to trial, in a suit by her former attorney, based on a social media message that accused the attorney of being "bought off."  A Yelp user and the contractor she criticized go at each other in court over their respective Internet posts. Is this only the tip of the iceberg? Is the Internet spawning a cottage industry of legal claims based on false or disparaging postings?

Surprisingly, it isn't. The Love and Yelp cases are exceptions, and the results in those cases even shed some light on why Internet defamation claims haven't proliferated.

With the Internet, far more communications are published than ever before. And yet the rate of libel suits — claims for damage based on disparaging communications — is much lower than before the Internet. More communications, fewer disparagement claims. It seems counterintuitive.

One partial explanation is the exemption U.S. law gives to Internet intermediaries. Because intermediaries such as service providers and website operators can't be sued over communications posted by their users, those deep pockets are immune, and that discourages suits.

But that exemption doesn't fully explain why Internet-based libel claims are so rare. We get a few more clues, however, when we look at the Love and Yelp cases, both of which went to trial in late January.

Both suits alleged classic libel. The plaintiffs in both cases had strong emotional cases, and credible damages claims. Both cases survived pretrial motions — the point where most libel cases fail — and went to trial. But each case ended with a whimper for the plaintiffs.

The suit against Courtney Love got a lot of publicity all along, especially during the week-long trial that ended with a defense verdict. The special twist to the case was that the key statement was made on a social media network.

The social media intermediary, of course, was not a defendant. It wasn't sued, but if it had been it almost certainly would have been dismissed based on section 230 of the Communications Act, the 1996 law enacted to permit the Internet to flourish, that exempts Internet intermediaries from liability for their users' communications. The intermediary exemption probably discourages a lot of Internet libel claims, because it removes those potential deep pockets.

But Love's pockets were deep enough, and the case against her wasn't trivial.  She had posted a social media message stating, in part, "I was f___ing devestated [sic] when Rhonda J. Holmes esq. of san diego [her former attorney] was bought off."  Interestingly, she testified that she thought she was replying in a direct (one-to-one) message to an inquiry from a single follower, and she apparently deleted the post only an hour after sending it.  The fact that virtually no one saw her message became an element of her defense.

But even limited distribution communications can support libel claims. (Years ago, courts analyzed whether an executive's dictation to a secretary was sufficient "publication" to support a libel case; in most states, it was.) And the gist of Love's social media message was pretty strong: Alleging that an attorney was "bought off" suggests either criminality or unethical conduct. So the plaintiff had spelled out key elements of a libel claim — a false, defamatory publication.

The role of privilege

Ultimately, the case turned on constitutional privilege, the special "breathing space" for free speech that the Supreme Court created fifty years ago, in the landmark 1964 case of New York Times v. Sullivan. Sullivan protects unknowingly false speech in cases involving public officials or public figures. The plaintiff, as an attorney for a celebrity, was deemed to be a public figure for purpose of her dealings with Love. Thus, she bore the burden of proving, with clear and convincing evidence, not only that the accusation against her was false, but that Love knew it to be false (or acted with reckless disregard of truth).

We know that was the key issue in the Love libel case, because the trial court, following a procedure first used in 1985, had the jury specifically answer the question, "Did Rhonda Holmes prove by clear and convincing evidence that Courtney Love knew it was false or doubted the truth of it?" The jury's "no" answer ended the case, in Love's favor.

That may be another explanation for fewer libel cases. Special interrogatory jury instructions help a lot in libel cases, by separating and clarifying key issues. With a general verdict form, juries are more likely to rule against a defendant that published a false and defamatory report. But when jurors must confront, clearly and separately, the key issue in the Sullivan privilege — did the defendant know the statement was false? — that privilege is more likely to be applied, as it was in the Love case. It is possible that knowing that the Sullivan privilege is more likely to be applied, fewer plaintiffs bring libel suits.

Is counter-speech the best remedy?

The Yelp case points in yet another direction. There, a Virginia woman, Jane Perez, posted scathing reviews of the work of a contractor, Christopher Dietz, on Yelp, a business review site. The contractor responded with his own online accusations against her. He sued, and she countersued. After a week-long trial, the jury returned an unusual verdict: Each party had defamed the other, but neither deserved any damages.

To some extent, the verdict calls to mind the argument made in the early days of the Internet that, because the Internet made it so easy to directly respond to allegations in front of the same audience who viewed the original accusation, libel simply didn't apply there. Legally, the argument was ridiculous. But as a practical matter, it may well explain the drop in asserted libel claims. Free speech advocates have long argued that "counter-speech" is the best argument against false claims. On the Internet, counter-speech is readily available, people use it, and there is accordingly less need to resort to the legal system. And when legal claims are brought, at least in the Yelp case, jurors may feel that the best remedy is the back-and-forth of speech and counter-speech, not damages awards.

We don't know for sure why libel claims have dropped even as published communications have skyrocketed. But the legal exemption for Internet intermediaries, better understanding by jurors of constitutional privilege, and an overall feeling that counter speech is the best remedy, all likely contribute.

This could be bad news for tabloid readers, since Courtney Love lawsuits are always fun to read about. But it is good news overall if the trend continues and we see fewer libel suits, which are costly, frustrating, and rarely productive for anyone.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Related Topics
Related Articles
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration (you must scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions