Conservative actor James Woods isn’t liable for defaming a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) in a tweet posted during the 2016 presidential election, the Sixth Circuit said.
The tweet, posted in March 2016, contained a picture of a woman at a rally in Chicago for then-Presidential Candidate Donald Trump.
The woman, who wore a Trump t-shirt, was seen giving a Nazi salute next to a picture of Portia Boulger. The tweet said: “So-called #Trump ‘Nazi’ is a #BernieSanders agitator/operative?”
Boulger wasn’t the woman in the Trump shirt. Nevertheless, Boulger, who filed suit against the actor, said that, after the tweet posted, she was harassed online and over the phone. She even received death threats.
Ohio’s four-part test for deciding whether a statement is defamatory didn’t yield a definitive result, the opinion by Chief Judge R. Guy Cole Jr. said.
When that happens, however, courts must look to see whether a statement is susceptible to both a defamatory and innocent meaning, the court said. If a statement has an innocent meaning, it isn’t actionable defamation.
Woods’ tweet could have had both meanings, the court said. The defamatory meaning was Woods suggested Boulger was the woman giving the Nazi salute. The innocent meaning was he was merely asking his 350,000 followers a question, the court said.
Because the meaning behind the tweet could have been innocent, Boulger’s claims couldn’t proceed, the court said.
Judge Helene W. White joined the opinion.
Judge John B. Nalbandian concurred in the result but said the critical question was how a reasonable reader would interpret the tweet.
Sandler Reiff Lamb Rosenstein & Birkenstock PC represented Boulger. Reminger Co. represented Woods.
The case is Boulger v. Woods, 2019 BL 64770, 6th Cir., No. 18-3170/3220, 2/27/19.