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James Woods Saved From Defamation Claim by a Question Mark

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

Harvey Weinstein is a misogynist, isn't he? Bruno Mars is a Milli Vanilli poser?

And a statement isn't defamatory if it's a question, right? That is in fact the case in a defamation lawsuit against actor James Woods.

Woods, who threw himself into the controversy during the last presidential campaign, beat the lawsuit by the slim margin of a question mark. A judge said it's a matter of context.

The Tweet

Woods stepped in it when he misidentified a woman as a Nazi on social media. He called her out from a news photo of a woman giving a "Heil Hitler" salute.

"So-called #Trump 'Nazi' is a #BernieSanders agitator/operative?" he tweeted.

The problem was that photo was paired with another one of Patricia Boulger, who was identified as a Bernie Sanders organizer by the Chicago Times. Oops.

Boulger sued, and Woods filed a motin to dismiss. He said it was just a question, not a false statement of fact.

"Were it not for the question mark at the end of the text, this would be an easy case," Judge George C. Smith said. "But the question mark cannot be ignored."

Question Cannot Be Ignored

Smith said the vast majority of courts have found such questions not to be assertions of fact. Rather, he said, a question indicates a "lack of definitive knowledge" about the issue and invites readers to consider possibilities.

The judge also pointed out the nature of Twitter accounts. He said each is unique in tone and content, which provides context for any communication.

"As a result, a reader cannot tell anything about whether a particular Twitter account is likely to contain reporting on facts, versus personal opinion or rhetorical questions, from the mere fact that the author uses of Twitter as his or her preferred communication medium," he said.

A word to the wise: always couch your defamatory statements as questions. Right?

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