Upholding a student’s right to parody an adjunct professor by means of an imposter Twitter account, the Court of Appeals of Michigan last week affirmed a trial court’s order dismissing the professor’s lawsuit against the student.
Todd Levitt, formerly an adjunct professor at Central Michigan University, also maintains an active law practice that, allegedly, includes among its primary clientele CMU students. Levitt’s marketing efforts included maintaining an active social media presence, including a (now-deleted) Twitter account, through which he billed himself as a “badass lawyer.” Among his posts on Twitter, Levitt admitted, were several that referred to alcohol and marijuana use, including posts in which:
- He stated that: “Mr. Jimmy Beam just confirmed a guest appearance in class next week.”
- He notified followers that he would be a guest bartender at a local bar
- He referred to “mommy marijuana” who “always put me at ease”
- He opined that if marijuana were legal in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, the CMU “dorms would look like they were on fire.”
In April 2014, Levitt noticed that someone had created a Twitter account billing itself as “Todd Levitt 2.0.” The account included a photograph of Levitt and a logo used by Levitt’s law firm. Defendant Zachary Felton, at the time a CMU student, later admitted to creating the imposter account. The Todd Levitt 2.0 account made the following posts:
- “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 hiatus from the medical card”
- “4/20 = Pot smoking holiday Possession of marijuana = Client Client = Income In the words of Snoop Dogg: smoke weed every day. #inToddWeToke”
Levitt did not appreciate Todd Levitt 2.0. He sued Felton on a variety of theories, including libel, defamation per se, business defamation, false light, intentional infliction of emotional distress, tortious interference with business relations, and unfair competition. Levitt alleged that, as a result of the parody account, he received calls from distressed clients, potential clients, and parents, and was told by two potential clients that, as a result of the account, they would not be hiring him. Levitt also claimed that, as a result of the parody account, he could not continue teaching at CMU and lost income.
In response, Felton admitted that he was behind the imposter account but argued that his posts to that account were protected as free speech by the First Amendment. The trial court agreed with him and found that, regardless of whether they were actually funny, the imposter account’s posts were “meant to ridicule and satirize plaintiff’s social media presence in a humorous way,” and that the statements could not have been reasonably interpreted as anything other than parody.
In affirming, the appeals court explained that Felton’s posts ridiculed and demeaned the legal profession and Levitt’s own status and an attorney and professor. With respect to the post suggesting Levitt’s students could earn extra credit by buying him a drink, the court stated: “Surely this statement cannot be interpreted as coming from a college professor.” Similarly, the court found that, read in the context of Levitt’s own posts (allegedly defamatory statements must be read in context), “a reasonable person would see defendant’s tweets as attempting to ridicule and satirize Levitt’s tweets about alcohol and marijuana use.”
The appeals court also pointed to multiple disclaimers posted on the imposter account, including one stating that the account was a “badass parody of our favorite lawyer,” and another that provided readers “a gentle reminder to potential seekers of Todd Levitt: This is not him. This is a parody account. . . .” The court even pointed to the name of the account, “Todd Levitt 2.0,” as providing a signal to readers that “the account was identifying itself as a superior or upgraded version of Levitt, which hints at the notion that it was a spoof.”
Finally, the appeals court rejected Levitt’s argument that fact-finding was necessary to determine that the challenged statements were not actionable, as a court may properly decide whether a statement is capable of defamatory meaning as a matter of law.