A recent graduate of the University of San Diego School of Law, Tiffany Dehen, has filed a lawsuit against a John Doe Twitter parody account user, Twitter Inc. the company and the University of San Diego for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The suit was filed in a California Civil District Court last week.
In Twitter’s short existence on the internet (10 years), it has become a tool that informs us, makes us laugh, cringe and enthralls us on a daily (correction: an hourly) basis. The 140 characters can be used to check what your co-worker had for lunch or to see who the 45th president thinks is “Sad!” today. The social media website has also become a bastion for trolls, jokers and parody accounts who use the site to lampoon their favorite targets.
Tiffany Dehen, a recent graduate of the University of San Diego School of Law and avid Twitter user, has quickly learned the sting that can come with public mockery. There’s no doubt that Dehen is a proud conservative and Trump supporter. One brief glance over her unlocked and public Twitter account (@tiffanysundevil) finds videos of right-wing talk show hosts, republican provocateurs, and conspiracy theorists. At least one anonymous Twitter user seemed to find comedy in Dehen’s daily musings and created a parody account based on her tweets. The now-deleted account was explicitly labeled as a parody account in its Twitter bio. The anonymous user skewered, poked fun and teased Dehen for being a “Tomi Lahren wannabee”.
With her law school Torts class no doubt still fresh on her mind, Dehen filed suit against the unanimous parody account creator, Twitter Inc. and curiously enough the University of San Diego. The civil suit damages are set at an astronomical one hundred million dollars (yes, you read that right). Dehen’s Original Petition filed in the Southern District of California quickly caught the attention of several different blogs and websites for its uniqueness.
For starters, a portion of the Petition is handwritten.
Also, the Petition doesn’t seem to be a Petition in the traditional sense. Dehen attached a legal brief to the document, where she maps out her unconventional legal theories. A sample of the brief reads as follows:
Additionally, it should be noted that Tiffany Dehen’s real twitter account consists of posts supporting the elected President of the United States, not Adolf Hitler, the socialist communist dictator from Germany. The fact that John Doe used Tiffany Dehen’s real name and linked the fictitious Twitter account to Tiffany Dehen’s real name and linked the fictitious Twitter account to Tiffany Dehen’s real account by retweeting Tiffany Dehen’s posts shows that John Doe acted with actual malice and negligence.
Glossing over the fact that Dehen incorrectly labeled Adolf Hitler as a “socialist communist”, the quote is a great an example of how bizarre the Petition is. Additionally, Dehen attempts to explain why Twitter Inc. should also be “enjoined” into the lawsuit. She explains:
Plaintiff requests to enjoin Twitter, Inc, jointly and severally, the social media website which allowed this disparaging speech to stay broadcast to the world, costing plaintiff potentially millions of dollars in future earnings. Twitter was put on notice on January 30, 2017, and as of Feb 1, 2017, the false twitter account was still posted, even after Tiffany Dehen put Twitter on notice. The process Twitter adheres to is absolutely ridiculous and should be looked at as well and Plaintiff claims the process Twitter has in place to review defamation is unconstitutional.
Section 230 of the U.S. Code may cause Dehen some legal hurdles in her efforts. Section 230 says that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider” (47 U.S.C. § 230). In other words, online intermediaries that host or republish speech are protected against a range of laws that might otherwise be used to hold them legally responsible for what others say and do. The protected intermediaries include not only regular Internet Service Providers (ISPs), but also a range of “interactive computer service providers,” including basically any online service that publishes third-party content. Though there are important exceptions for certain criminal and intellectual property-based claims, CDA 230 creates a broad protection that has allowed innovation and free speech online to flourish. There is precedent in the First Circuit’s ruling in Doe v. Backpage which provides that Section 230 protects how websites sites “structure and operate” themselves.
In another odd twist, Dehen explains including the University of San Diego in the suit:
Plaintiff requests to enjoin the University of San Diego because of the fact that as seen in Exhibits 34 and 35, it appears as though there is a high probability John Doe is a University of San Diego student or alumni since the photo used to make the swastika headband, as shown in Exhibits 3, 4, and 5, is Plaintiff’s profile photograph on LinkedIn. University of San Diego should be liable as well due to a prior matter that was not resolved appropriately by University of San Diego which led to USD acting recklessly, or at the very least negligently, to allow this matter to arise.
However, far-fetched Dehen’s lawsuit may be, the law grad remains undeterred. The conservative tweeter has started her own website explaining her side of the story as well as asking for donations in order to contribute to her legal fund. Furthermore, although Dehen is currently embroiled in a lawsuit against Twitter she remains active on the site, where she will no doubt find supporters of her cause. She hasn’t quite found fans in legal circles:
We are seeing a slew of everyday people becoming Celebrities (ie. the “Cash Me Ousside” girls’ rise to 5.6 million followers on Instagram and a Top 20 song on iTunes). If nothing else, Dehen will likely rise to Internet fame faster as this lawsuit continues to gain exposure. And clearly, she won’t be the first to cash in on that opportunity.