'Badass Lawyer' Forgets 1st Amendment, Loses Twitter Parody Suit
What's the best response to someone making fun of you on Twitter? Probably not to sue them for libel. One lawyer learned that lesson the hard way last week, after his case was tossed from court. Todd Levitt is a Michigan lawyer, former adjunct at Central Michigan University, and self-described "badass" who sued a former student for libel after he created a Levitt parody account on Twitter -- telling the kid to "grab some Vaseline" and get ready for prison.
Apparently, they don't teach the First Amendment at CMU.
College Prof. or College Student?
There seems to have been plenty to parody about Levitt. He appears to be, after all, neither your typical lawyer nor typical law professor. Here's how the Michigan Court of Appeals introduces him:
Levitt was actively involved in marketing his law firm on various social media platforms, including Twitter. His since-deleted Twitter account represented that he was a "badass lawyer." In addition to promoting his law practice on Twitter, Levitt admittedly made several posts which referenced marijuana and alcohol use. For instance, he posted a tweet about serving alcohol in a class he taught at CMU, and in another, stated that "Mr. Jimmy Beam just confirmed a guest appearance in class next week."
Levitt would frequently reminisce about his college days from his (now defunct) @levittlaw handle. In spring of 2014, Levitt found a parody account @levittlawyer, which had been created by a CMU student. The parody account used Levitt's photo, described itself as Todd Levitt 2.0, and tweeted out such gems as:
Buying me a drink at Cabin karaoke will get you extra credit, but it's not like that matters because you're guaranteed an A in the syllabus.-- Todd Levitt 2.0 (@levittlawyer) April 17, 2014
First Amendment 101
After two weeks of parody, Levitt deleted his Twitter account. His suit followed shortly after, contending that the parody had cost him clients who thought Levitt 2.0 was Levitt himself. Unfortunately for Levitt, the First Amendment stood in the way of his claims for defamation per se, business defamation, libel, intentional infliction of emotional distress, tortious interference with business relations, false light, and unfair competition.
As most 1Ls can tell you, the First Amendment protects parody and other statements that "cannot be interpreted as stating actual facts about an individual." And, as the Michigan courts saw, "When read in context, defendant's tweets are a parody and cannot reasonably be interpreted as coming from Levitt, an attorney and college professor."
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