‘Badass Lawyer’ Loses Lawsuit Over Parody Twitter Account–Levitt v. Felton
This is an awesome parody account/First Amendment case.
Todd Levitt is a self-described “badass lawyer” (this description comes from his since-deleted Twitter account) and an adjunct instructor at Central Michigan University (CMU). His Twitter account looked interesting, to say the least. During his short tenure on Twitter, Levitt supposedly made posts referencing “alcohol and drug use.” Here’s one tweet quoted by the court:
Mr. Jimmy Beam just confirmed a guest appearance in class next week . . .
Mr. Levitt’s Twitter handle was “levittlaw”. A parody account, started by a CMU student, appeared at @levittlawyer (and is still online). It poked fun at Mr. Levitt’s account:
- “What’s the difference between the internet and my tweeted legal advice? A: none. They’re both 100% accurate!”
- “Buying me a drink at Cabin Karaoke will get you extra [credit], but it’s not like that matters because you are guaranteed an A in syllabus.”
- “Partying = Defense Clients[.] Defense Clients = Income[.] If I endorse partying, will my income grow? It’s like a Ponzi scheme for lawyers!”
- “@twebbsays should either meet me at 4/20 in my satellite office or take a hiatus from the medical card” and “#inToddWeToke” and “4/20 = Pot smoking holiday[.] Possession of marijuana = Client[.] Client = Income[.] In the words of Snoop Dogg: smoke weed every day. #inToddWeToke[.]”
Levitt sued, alleging claims for “false light, intentional infliction of emotional distress, libel, tortious interference with business relations, defamation per se, business defamation, and unfair competition.” In addition to other relief, Levitt and his firm asked for termination of the account.
The defendant responded, raising a First Amendment defense. The defendant also tweeted a disclaimer, in addition to generally referencing that he was running a parody account:
A gentle reminder to potential seekers of Todd Levitt: This is not him. This is a parody account. You can find the real Todd(ler)@levittlaw.
The trial court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment. The Michigan court of appeals affirms, noting that statements that cannot be interpreted as stating facts about a person are protected. These can include “rhetorical hyperbole and imaginative expression often found in satires, parodies, and cartoons” (citing the famous Hustler v. Falwell case).
The court says that, when read in context, it’s obvious the account was a parody account. The tweets ridicule and demean the legal profession, Levitt’s status as an attorney, and his performance as a professor. When read in context, no reasonable person would see them as anything other than an attempt to ridicule and satirize Levitt’s own tweets.
The court also cites to the disclaimers posted to the account, and the fact that “Levitt 2.0,” would be understood in common parlance to mean an “upgraded” version of the original account, which “hints at the notion that it is a spoof.”
Hello, Prof. Jeff Jarviss! See “Why Esquire Took Down That Funny @ProfJeffJarvis Post” for interesting background on this long-lived parody account that has become a voice in media/tech circles. A good explainer on the viability of a case brought by Prof. Jeff Jarvis against the operator of the Jeff Jarvis parody account and/or Esquire magazine (which published an article in the voice of that account) from Popehat here. This case confirms the inevitable result of a dispute over Prof. Jeff Jarvis 2.0.
Two points we’ve seen in other similar cases. The court likes the disclaimers, although the one here was not actually in the account’s bio or description. And the court gives the statements the benefit of context, in this case, taking into account that readers would have been exposed to the original tweets in question.
Seriously, if there is a hall of fame (or shame) for people who sue over internet butthurt, Mr. Levitt has certainly earned himself admission.
Eric’s comments: Any lawyer who self-promotes as a ‘badass lawyer” is already at least partially a self-parodist, no?
I always find it fascinating when lawyers become the plaintiff-clients yet still lose their cases. Especially if they are, in fact, badass lawyers. Perhaps he could have had better results if he’d retained Mr. Johnny Walker or Mary Jane as his counsel.
Case citation: Levitt v. Felton, 2016 WL 2944824 (Mich. Ct. App. May 19, 2016).
h/t Volokh “Michigan Court of Appeals upholds First Amendment parody claim in the ‘badass lawyer’ Twitter libel case”
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