Michigan Appeals Court Holds Imposter Twitter Account is Constitutionally Protected

The Michigan intermediate court recently upheld a lower court’s decision against a plaintiff attorney and former law professor in a case involving a parody Twitter account. computer

Todd Levitt is a lawyer and former professor at Central Michigan University. CMU students are his firm’s primary clientele. Levitt marketed his firm heavily on Twitter. The former account announced him as a “badass lawyer.” Levitt posted frequently about drugs and alcohol. For example, he posted about serving Jim Bean in class and about his relationship with “mommy marijuana.”

In the spring of 2014, Levitt noticed the following account:  “Todd Levitt 2.0.” The mystery account included Levitt’s photo and his firm’s logo. Levitt eventually discovered that defendant Zachary Felton, a CMU student, had created the imposter account (which still exists). Levitt filed suit against Felton, alleging false light, intentional infliction of emotional distress, libel, tortious interference with business relations, defamation, and unfair competition.

Levitt alleged that Felton tried to mislead Levitt’s Twitter followers and attacked his integrity as a lawyer and professor. After two weeks, Levitt deactivated his Twitter account. Levitt claimed that during these two weeks, he received numerous calls and lost two potential clients due to the imposter account. Levitt alleged that he suffered damages in the form of lost income and the loss of his adjunct professorship at CMU.

In response to Levitt’s complaint, Felton assumed responsibility for Todd Levitt 2.0, which he characterized as a parody. As evidence, he pointed to tweets explicitly identifying the account as a “parody” and “satire.” He also pointed to a disclaimer indicating that the account was not the real Todd Levitt and directing followers to Levitt’s actual account.

Felton moved for summary judgment, arguing that the posts were constitutionally protected under the First Amendment. The trial court granted the motion, reasoning that the account was protected under the First Amendment because it could not rationally be construed as anything other than a parody.

The Michigan appeals court agreed. The court reasoned that Felton’s tweets mock and undermine Levitt’s law practice and status as a law professor. For example, some of the tweets urged followers to commit crimes to boost Levitt’s business. Other tweets suggested that Levitt’s students could receive extra credit by providing him with alcohol. The court reasoned that such statements could not be reasonably interpreted as being tweeted by Levitt.

The appeals court agreed with the lower court that in the context of Levitt’s own tweets, a reasonable person would interpret Felton’s tweets as satirizing Levitt’s Twitter account. Moreover, the court construed the name “Todd Levitt 2.0” as suggesting a spoof.

Finally, the appeals court noted that Felton’s tweets explicitly stated numerous times that Todd Levitt 2.0 was strictly a parody account. The court concluded that since the tweets could not reasonably be interpreted as factual, summary judgment for Felton was appropriate.

Personal injury lawyer Kelly Neumann at the Neumann Law Group represents victims of accidents throughout Michigan from offices in Traverse City and Grand Rapids. Call us at (231) 463-0122 or at (616) 717-5666 for a free consultation.

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