Courtney Love was sued by a fashion designer after she posted a series of inflammatory tweets, one calling the designer a liar and a thief. A landlord in Chicago sued a tenant for $50,000 after she tweeted about her moldy apartment. And Demi Moore slapped back at Perez Hilton over a revealing photograph of the actress’ daughter.

A growing number of people have begun lashing out at their Twitter critics, challenging the not-quite rules of etiquette on a service where insults are lobbed in brief bursts, too short to include the social niceties. Some offended parties are suing. For others, extracting a public mea culpa will do. In some cases, the payback is extreme: Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks of the National Basketball Association, was fined $25,000 for criticising a referee in a tweet after a game.

Few prescribed social norms

Blogs, of course, have long been rife with the discontented heaping abuse on foes. But academics and researchers who study online attitudes say that same behaviour has been less common on Twitter, in part, because many people use their real names. Now it is migrating to the service, attracting lawsuits and leaving users to haggle among themselves about what will be tolerated.

Complicating matters, there are few prescribed social norms on Twitter like those in more closed communities like Facebook. The service has attained mass popularity without much time to develop an organic users’ culture. On top of that, with tweets limited to 140 characters, users come right to the point without context or nuance.

“It’s the same reason why schoolyard fights don’t start out with, ‘I have a real problem with the way you said something so let’s discuss it,’” said Josh Bernoff, a researcher and an author of Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies. “You get right to the punch in the nose. Twitter doesn’t allow room for reflection. It gets people to the barest emotion.”

The same laws of libel and defamation that apply to traditional media and the Internet also apply to Twitter, according to free speech experts. (Defamation is when someone knowingly says something false that causes harm.) What is likely to shift, said Floyd Abrams, the well-known First Amendment lawyer, is what language is considered acceptable and whether it is deemed harmful. In the 1950s, he explained, it was libelous to call someone a Communist; today it is not. ``The basic law will be the same, but I would think that a defendant might argue that the language used on Twitter is understood to not be taken as seriously as is the case in other forms of communication,” said Abrams, who has represented The New York Times. “We will have to wait and see how judges and juries figure out how to deal with this.”

Bryan Freedman is the lawyer in Los Angeles who is representing Dawn Simorangkir, a designer who markets clothes under the Boudoir Queen label, and who sued Love for libel in March. The lawsuit contends that Love “became infatuated” with the designer, asking her to create costumes using vintage material the singer owned.

When Simorangkir asked to be paid, Love balked at the price. Simorangkir, in return, refused to return Love’s vintage material, according to legal documents filed by Love’s lawyers. The singer accused the designer of being a liar and thief (among other things) in a number of rambling, misspelled tweets.

“You will end up in a circle of corched eaeth hunted til your dead,” read one tweet from Love in March.

Love and her lawyers, Keith Fink and Olaf Muller, declined to comment on the lawsuit. But in August Love’s lawyers sought to dismiss the case, saying it would violate and inhibit her right to free speech. Freedman maintains, however, that Simorangkir’s business has suffered because of Love. A hearing is set for this month. “I find with this kind of communication you will always end up saying something that will get you in trouble,” Freedman said.

Freedman’s perspective is interesting because he also represents Perez Hilton, the gossip blogger known for taunting celebrities with embarrassing posts. In September, Hilton got into a public spat with Demi Moore on Twitter after he posted a link on his Web site to a photo of Moore’s 15-year-old daughter in a low-cut blouse. In a series of tweets, Moore accused Hilton, whose real name is Mario Lavandeira, of flouting child pornography laws. Hilton went on the attack, posting tweets that said Moore was an inept mother.

Both parties’ lawyers exchanged threatening letters. Through Freedman, Hilton accused Moore of defamation. On Sept. 4, Moore’s lawyer, Marty Singer, responded in a letter calling Hilton “regularly crude, insulting and cruel.”

No lawsuits were filed. As Stephen Huvane, Moore’s publicist, put it, “No one wins in these situations.” — © 2009 The New York Times News Service

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