What’s in a Tweet?

On October 15, Judge James Otero dismissed Stormy Daniels’ defamation lawsuit and ordered her to pay for his legal fees. This lawsuit came about after Daniels claimed in an interview with Anderson that a man approached her and her infant daughter in a parking lot and threatened them both unless they left Trump alone. Trump then tweeted that the story was a con job and that the man was nonexistent.

Daniels then sued Trump, claiming that this tweet had ruined her reputation and that she had to hire two bodyguards in the aftermath.

Otero cited the first amendment when dismissing the case, stating that the tweet was “rhetorical hyperbole,” which is protected under the First Amendment. And while I would agree that rhetorical hyperbole is protected under the First Amendment, I do not agree that this tweet is an example of it.

At this point, Trump’s tweets can be considered official statements from the President of the United States. This was made certain by (at the time) Press Secretary Sean Spicer in the spring of 2017. So the idea that he, or his lawyers, can claim he was just kidding sets a dangerous precedent.

Take for example this tweet:

or this one:

or… this one.

By labeling the “fake news” the enemy of the people (which, by the way, “fake news” has basically become the name of any news outlet that reports negative stories about the president,) not only is that an attack on the free press (a First Amendment right) but could also be considered an incitement for violence. After all, is an “enemy of the American People” and something that can “cause War” not something that should be stopped?

Some people who support Trump have taken the matter into their own hands. For example, in August a man named Robert Chain was arrested for calling and threatening Boston Globe reporters. One call included the statement, “We are going to shoot you motherf**kers in the head, you Boston Globe c**ksuckers. Shoot every f**king one of you.” When he walked out of the courthouse after posting bail, he said, “America was saved when Donald J. Trump was elected President.”

If the reporters chose to sue Trump on the grounds that these tweets and other statements made at rallies or press conferences incited these threats, could the judge once again cite that the phrases were “rhetorical hyperbole”? My concern is after the dismissal of Daniels’ case, it is possible. And what happens when it becomes more than threats?

With textual communication is difficult to discern intent and tone. Therefore, I believe all tweets or written statements from the president, or any government official, should be treated as serious statements unless the written message clearly states it is an opinion or joke. The legal system must catch up to technological and communication advances if it wants to be able to attain clear verdicts, and when it comes to this particular Stormy Daniels v. Trump lawsuit, I am not sure that was the case.

3 thoughts on “What’s in a Tweet?

Add yours

  1. I thought this post was very interesting! I agree that tweets from Trump should be viewed as official (and not be deleted). I agree that it can be difficult to tell the tone of tweets. Being able to claim a tweet was a “joke” after the fact seems like a lack of responsibility.

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  2. Totally agree about the legal system needing to catch up to technological advances in order to regulate it appropriately. This reminded me of the example John Oliver brought up in his segment on online harassment about a woman who filed a police report concerning death threats she had received on Twitter, only to find that the officer who responded to the report didn’t even know what Twitter was or how it worked. I think a similar situation is happening here: the development of online social media and communication technologies has occurred so rapidly in the last decade, there’s only a limited amount of relevant legislation and court precedents to base legal enforcement on. Trump is really the first U.S. president to use Twitter as his main form of communication with the public, so it’s no wonder why there’s so much confusion on how his tweets should be treated.

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  3. Great post. I think though, that you need to disentangle a couple of issues. Stormy Daniels was suing for libel and I am not sure that Trump’s tweet reaches that standard. Additionally, as a public figure herself, Daniels has a difficult case to make in terms of libel laws. The rest of what you wrote, however, gets to something else- incitement. In this case, the question is whether Trump’s tweets should count as incitement- something that has little to do legally with the technology itself. While I am not sure if the law needs to catch up to the technology, I think judges do. In this regard, it is useful to think of the term stochastic terrorism. Is Trump engaging in stochastic terrorism when he taunts public figures? Which is to say- given the power he has with his base, and given the fact that there are always people on the fringe who are unbalanced, are his tweets/statements in some ways made knowing that they will incite others to violence while allowing Trump plausible deniability. If Trump can always claim it was rhetorical hyperbole, despite knowing the impact his words have, there is a serious problem.

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