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DTCI: Determining personal jurisdiction in the Twitterverse

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TwohyWhat are, or should be, the contours of personal jurisdiction over foreign defendants who are alleged to have defamed forum residents using social media? The answer will vary depending on the social media platform at issue and the details of the communication at issue.

The two most prominent platforms — Facebook and Twitter — work in very different, one might say opposite, ways. One who posts an item on Facebook will generally know the scope of its distribution. The poster is presumed to be aware of his settings and whether his posts are visible to the world, only to his friends, or also to friends of friends. The poster will also know whether his post is made in a group which is open, closed or secret. And as a general matter, the Facebook poster will know the probable geographic reach of his post, given that users’ localities are public information. The poster can thus make a judgment about how widely a post will be distributed, whom it will reach, and in which localities it will be published.

The Twitter user, by contrast, has far less ability to predict whom or where a tweet will reach. Nearly 90 percent of users maintain public accounts. By its very nature, Twitter promotes the re-tweeting of user tweets. A user can be certain that a tweet will reach her immediate followers. Beyond that, however, things are murky. The original tweet may go no further than the user’s own followers. But if one of her followers who himself has 50,000 followers re-tweets her tweet, and some of his followers respond in kind, the scope of distribution can expand exponentially. Twitter generally affords the user less control than does Facebook over whom and where postings will reach, principally due to the re-tweeting mechanism.

The potential for a tweet to reach many more users and localities than originally anticipated has implications for the scope of liability and personal jurisdiction. Indiana holds that the author of a defamatory communication is liable for republication where this is a “natural consequence” of his actions. Powers v. Gastineau, 568 N.E.2d 1020, 1024 (Ind. Ct. App. 1991). Since Twitter users are presumed to know how the service works, including its re-tweeting mechanism, and users invariably have some familiarity with who their followers are (and thus how many indirect followers are in their potential network), it is difficult to argue that a Twitter user should be able to avoid potential liability for republished tweets. The scope of potential liability thus enlarged, one turns to the perennial question of jurisdiction.

Where a reasonable person in the poster’s position, having no general contacts with the forum, would fail to recognize that their tweet or Facebook post would be published in the plaintiff’s home state, specific jurisdiction will probably be absent. In such a case, the poster can not fairly be said to have purposefully directed his publication into the forum. Burger King Corp. v. Rudzewicz, 471 U.S. 462, 471 (1985). A claim for defamation by a forum resident, arising from the tweet or post, will not relate to forum-state activities by the defendant. It is also significant that the author may have been unaware that the impact of his post or tweet would be felt in a particular forum, regardless of whether one formally applies the “effects test,” which represents the high-water mark for personal jurisdiction. Calder v. Jones, 465 U.S. 783, 788 (1984). Thus, a tweet which allegedly defames a secondary or tertiary follower should not support personal jurisdiction in the plaintiff’s home forum.

By contrast, a post that causes reputational harm to a direct follower on Twitter, a Facebook friend, or member of a Facebook group to which the poster belongs will more likely support jurisdiction in the plaintiff’s home forum. In that case, a good argument can be made that, owing to the author’s awareness that her tweet or post would be published in the forum, she has purposely availed herself of conducting activities in the forum, and that the litigation (like the injury) arises out of the author’s forum state activities. Once a court is satisfied that an exercise of jurisdiction would not be premised solely on the author’s “random, isolated or fortuitous” contacts with the forum state, Keeton v. Hustler Magazine, Inc., 465 U.S. 770, 774 (1984), it must determine that jurisdiction would be fair and reasonable under the circumstances. This requires consideration of (1) the defendant’s burden in appearing; (2) the forum state’s interest in adjudicating the dispute; (3) the plaintiff’s interest in obtaining convenient and effective relief; (4) the judicial system’s interest in obtaining the most effective resolution of the controversy; and (5) the common interests of all sovereigns in promoting substantive social policies. Burger King Corp., 471 U.S. at 477 (citing World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson, 444 U.S. 286, 292 (1980)).

The first factor will almost always favor the defendant, the exception being where there are multiple defendants and the objecting defendant will arguably have to appear and testify as a material witness in any event. Where the plaintiff is a resident of the forum state, the second and third of these factors will weigh in the plaintiff’s favor. Under the single publication rule, a forum state typically will be found to have an interest in securing the most effective (and efficient) resolution of the controversy in a unitary proceeding. This leaves social policy, which may not be particularly relevant to a private defamation action, especially given that First Amendment concerns are generally not part of jurisdictional analysis. Calder, 465 U.S. at 790.•

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John Twohy is a partner in the Hammond office of Eichhorn & Eichhorn and is a member of the DTCI Board of Directors. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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  1. I have been on this program while on parole from 2011-2013. No person should be forced mentally to share private details of their personal life with total strangers. Also giving permission for a mental therapist to report to your parole agent that your not participating in group therapy because you don't have the financial mean to be in the group therapy. I was personally singled out and sent back three times for not having money and also sent back within the six month when you aren't to be sent according to state law. I will work to het this INSOMM's removed from this state. I also had twelve or thirteen parole agents with a fifteen month period. Thanks for your time.

  2. Our nation produces very few jurists of the caliber of Justice DOUGLAS and his peers these days. Here is that great civil libertarian, who recognized government as both a blessing and, when corrupted by ideological interests, a curse: "Once the investigator has only the conscience of government as a guide, the conscience can become ‘ravenous,’ as Cromwell, bent on destroying Thomas More, said in Bolt, A Man For All Seasons (1960), p. 120. The First Amendment mirrors many episodes where men, harried and harassed by government, sought refuge in their conscience, as these lines of Thomas More show: ‘MORE: And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, *575 and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship? ‘CRANMER: So those of us whose names are there are damned, Sir Thomas? ‘MORE: I don't know, Your Grace. I have no window to look into another man's conscience. I condemn no one. ‘CRANMER: Then the matter is capable of question? ‘MORE: Certainly. ‘CRANMER: But that you owe obedience to your King is not capable of question. So weigh a doubt against a certainty—and sign. ‘MORE: Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King's command make it round? And if it is round, will the King's command flatten it? No, I will not sign.’ Id., pp. 132—133. DOUGLAS THEN WROTE: Where government is the Big Brother,11 privacy gives way to surveillance. **909 But our commitment is otherwise. *576 By the First Amendment we have staked our security on freedom to promote a multiplicity of ideas, to associate at will with kindred spirits, and to defy governmental intrusion into these precincts" Gibson v. Florida Legislative Investigation Comm., 372 U.S. 539, 574-76, 83 S. Ct. 889, 908-09, 9 L. Ed. 2d 929 (1963) Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, concurring. I write: Happy Memorial Day to all -- God please bless our fallen who lived and died to preserve constitutional governance in our wonderful series of Republics. And God open the eyes of those government officials who denounce the constitutions of these Republics by arbitrary actions arising out capricious motives.

  3. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

  4. "Meanwhile small- and mid-size firms are getting squeezed and likely will not survive unless they become a boutique firm." I've been a business attorney in small, and now mid-size firm for over 30 years, and for over 30 years legal consultants have been preaching this exact same mantra of impending doom for small and mid-sized firms -- verbatim. This claim apparently helps them gin up merger opportunities from smaller firms who become convinced that they need to become larger overnight. The claim that large corporations are interested in cost-saving and efficiency has likewise been preached for decades, and is likewise bunk. If large corporations had any real interest in saving money they wouldn't use large law firms whose rates are substantially higher than those of high-quality mid-sized firms.

  5. The family is the foundation of all human government. That is the Grand Design. Modern governments throw off this Design and make bureaucratic war against the family, as does Hollywood and cultural elitists such as third wave feminists. Since WWII we have been on a ship of fools that way, with both the elite and government and their social engineering hacks relentlessly attacking the very foundation of social order. And their success? See it in the streets of Fergusson, on the food stamp doles (mostly broken families)and in the above article. Reject the Grand Design for true social function, enter the Glorious State to manage social dysfunction. Our Brave New World will be a prison camp, and we will welcome it as the only way to manage given the anarchy without it.

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