A single question mark saved one conservative celebrity from paying $3 million in defamation charges.
James Woods was sued in March 2017 by Portia Boulger for misidentifying her as a Nazi on Twitter, according to Hollywood Reporter.
A viral photo of a woman at a Chicago rally for then-presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2016 giving a “Heil Hitler” salute was posted by one Twitter user next to a picture that had run in the Chicago Tribune of Boulger, a reported Bernie Sanders organizer.
Woods reposted the pictures on Twitter with the caption, “So called #Trump ‘Nazi’ is a #BernieSanders agitator/operative?”
The Tweet has since been deleted, but the two women in the pictures were not the same.
Boulger then sued the actor for defamation and sought $3 million in damages.
Woods’ defense was that he was just asking a question that invited his followers to make their own conclusions, and he wasn’t stating a fact.
An Ohio judge ruled in favor of Woods on Wednesday and dismissed the defamation and invasion-of-privacy lawsuit.
The question mark in Woods’ tweet saved him from the charges, U.S. District Court Judge Geoge Smith wrote in the ruling, according to Hollywood Reporter.
“Were it not for the question mark at the end of the text, this would be an easy case,” Smith wrote. “But the question mark cannot be ignored. The vast majority of courts to consider questions as potential defamatory statements have found them not to be assertions of fact. Rather, a question indicated a defendant’s lack of definitive knowledge about the issue and invites the reader to consider various possibilities.”
However, the judge also pointed out that question marks don’t always protect defendants from defamation liability because of Ohio’s “innocent construction rule.”
“That is, if allegedly defamatory words are susceptible to two meanings, one defamatory and one innocent, the defamatory meaning should be rejected, and the innocent meaning adopted,” Smith wrote. “Here, the Court can certainly envision a reasonable reader interpreting Woods’s tweet as an assertion of fact that Boulger and the woman giving the Nazi salute are the same person. However, it cannot say as a matter of law that all reasonable readers would interpret the tweet in that way.”
The judge added that since each Twitter account “is unique in tone and content,” readers can sometimes misinterpret tweets.
“A reader cannot tell anything about whether a particular Twitter account is likely to contain reporting on facts, versus personal opinion or rhetorical questions, from the mere fact that the author uses of Twitter as his or her preferred communication medium.”
In July 2015, Woods’ filed his own lawsuit against a Twitter user who suggested the actor was a “cocaine addict” because of his conservative political opinions, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
The defendant in the case died and his attorney Kenneth White wrote in a letter, “On behalf of my client — the defendant referred to as ‘Abe List’ in the lawsuit filed by James Woods — and my client’s surviving family, I acknowledge that they are not aware of any facts to suggest that Mr. Woods has ever been a cocaine addict or used any other drugs.”
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