Courtney Love Wins Twitter Defamation Trial

After eight days of testimony, the singer prevails in a trailblazing case.

On Friday, a California jury decided that Courtney Love shouldn't be held liable for a tweet directed at her former attorney Rhonda Holmes.

The case is believed to be the first trial in a U.S. courtroom involving allegations of defamation on Twitter. Holmes was hired by Love to handle a fraud case against those managing the estate of Kurt Cobain, but in 2009, the relationship between the colorful rock star and her ex-attorney went south, and Love composed a tweet that read in part, "I was f***ing devestated [sic] when Rhonda J. Holmes esq. of san diego was bought off."

Holmes sued, claiming the tweet had hurt her reputation.

Because the attorney was deemed to be a limited-purpose public figure as a result of her connection to a celebrity, Holmes needed to demonstrate that Love acted with malice. Love defended herself by saying she meant the tweet to be a private direct message, and when she learned it had been sent to the public accidentally, quickly deleted it.

Love also testified that she believed her message to be true when she sent it. That might have been the prevailing defense. The jury answered no to the question, "Did Rhonda Holmes prove by clear and convincing evidence that Courtney Love knew it was false or doubted the truth of it?"

Love wasn't present for the reading of the verdict. She reportedly showed up late to court.

The trial took eight days and featured the testimony of many who knew Love. There were also social media experts who took the witness stand including one hired by Love who said there was no evidence that Love's "bought off" tweet had ever been retweeted. Love herself testified to the jury and expressed disappointment in Holmes after the attorney had once stood by her side when nobody believed that a conspiracy had been perpetuated on Cobain's estate.

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Ultimately, the jury determined that Holmes had not made a case for defamation, meaning it will be up to another jury in some future case to figure out how to assess damages in the age of social media. In fact, it might involve Love herself as she's facing yet another defamation trial in a lawsuit brought by fashion designer Dawn Simorangkir. This one addresses what Love had to say on Pinterest.

Days earlier, John Lawrence, Love's attorney, called her to the witness stand. One of the first lines of inquiry was why Holmes had been retained in the first place. This brought an entertaining answer about who else in the entertainment industry had led her down this path.

    Lawrence: When did you start to believe that Kurt Cobain's estate and your assets may have been mismanaged?

    Love: The first time was in 2003. I ran into a box with 102 credit card receipts in it that made no sense. And then just over the years, it just became more and more obvious. I came from nothing, so to me, $100,000 is a fortune. So then I started talking to other musicians, Bono from U2, Lenny Kravitz, and they started talking to me about finances, and it was obvious that there was something really, really wrong.

    Lawrence: What did you do about that?

    Love: Well, I started telling my entertainment attorneys about it, and I started looking for an outside attorney, particularly, like, a fraud litigator. And I started looking online myself.

    Lawrence: You didn't get any member from the entertainment attorneys.

    Love: No, no, I didn't.

    Lawrence: Did you believe some of them might have, in fact, been involved?

    Love: I'm positive that several of them were involved, yes.

Holmes was eventually hired. The attorney allegedly reinforced Love's suspicion of a conspiracy. And Love was over the moon that someone was standing by her side.

    Lawrence: How did it make you feel to know that there were people that now, at this point in time, believed that, yes, there was merit to your fraud case.

    Love: Elated, like I wasn't wearing a tinfoil hat anymore. Mostly that I could go into my daughter's room and tell her that it was over, and she could talk about boys again and have me back as a mother. It was the biggest deal ever, because after the FBI dropped me, nobody believed me. And it was like when the News of the World tapped my phone, nobody believed that either, and then in '08, it all came out about the voice hacking. But this was bigger than that, and there was no -- nobody -- the people that were in on it obviously believed me, and there's some big lawyers in town who said things to me like, "Courtney, I have to live in this community. I'll answer to a subpoena."

The relationship between Love and Holmes headed south sometime around April 2009. Love testified that her ex-attorney told her of hacked bank accounts and emails and being threatened in the parking lot. Love says she believed this was connected to the underlying fraud conspiracy. Love says in one of their last conversations how she spoke to Holmes about convincing her daughter not to drop out of high school. Sometime thereafter, the two stopped communicating. According to Love, she never told Holmes that her services were no longer required. (Holmes has refuted this.) Then came the tweet.

    Lawrence: What were you trying to convey when you wrote that tweet?

    Love: Well, I wanted to find out if Rhonda had vanished, so that's why I gave her name specifically. The conversation that night with those kids -- I'm sort of a computer retard, and back then -- now I know how to DM [direct message] perfectly, but then I didn't know how to DM perfectly, so I thought I was DM'ing. I thought I was making a private thing. So I was trying to convey that I thought she'd been bought off.

    Lawrence: And what did you mean by bought off?

    Love: It isn't like someone comes up to you with a suitcase. It could be power; it could be this very case.

    Lawrence: So you felt that somehow she'd been compromised in some fashion; is that right?

    Love: Yes.

During the above direct examination, Love tried to offer some theory about how everything was connected, how Holmes' lawsuit against her could be tied to her general feeling that her ex-lawyer had stepped away from her side. At one point, she even suggested that Barry Langberg, Holmes' attorney, was somehow caught up here. Obviously, this came up in cross-examination. There might have even been a hint to the jury that Love's testimony was a performance.

    Langberg: You really don't think I'm part of this conspiracy, right?

    Love: No, I'm sorry.

    Langberg: I know it wasn't personal, but when you say the person's name, it becomes personal.

    Love: I know. You're a powerful lawyer, and I'm sorry.

    Langberg: At the start, you said you were a musician. True?

    Love: And I act sometimes, too.

    Langberg: And I was going to bring that up. You're an accomplished actress, right?

    Love: Yes, sir.

The cross-examination eventually got to what Love was thinking when she composed the tweet. If Love didn't have ill will toward Holmes, it will at least need to be shown that the singer acted recklessly with regard to the truth. But then again, up until this point, Love has maintained that the tweet was "substantially true," which would give her an alternative out from being held liable.

    Langberg: You knew that when you made that tweet, you knew that the phrase "bought off'" was a negative, right? I mean it wasn't good?

    Love: It's not good.

    Langberg: And you knew that even particularly for a lawyer to say that -- that a lawyer was bought off -- that's not good, right?

    Love: No, it's not good.

And a short time later …

    Langberg: Can you point us to one document, one person's testimony, one anything, that shows that Rhonda Holmes took a bribe to stop representing you? Can you point us to anything like that?

    Love: I don't think she took a bribe.

    Langberg: OK. Good?

    Love: I don't know that she did.

    Langberg: Can you point us to anything, anything, any statement by anyone, any piece of paper, any document that shows us that Rhonda Holmes was paid ever, paid to stop representing you?

    Love: I can't point to you, but I think something happened -- threats by more powerful counsel.

    Langberg: In your own mind, knowing that what you said -- that accusation of being bought off -- could negatively affect an attorney, do you think it was reckless for you to say it in the tweet?

    Love: I believed it when I said it.

The case is expected to be handed to a jury on Friday with a verdict thereafter.

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