by Joe Patrice
Above the Law
Jan 5, 2017
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Actor James Woods is famous for playing prickly, mean-spirited, cartoonish villains. Apparently he excels at these roles by living in the skin of a prickly, mean-spirited, cartoonish villain every day of his life.
This commitment to his craft is surely why he’s still suing a dead man for $10 million over allegedly libelous Tweeting. Still. Suing. A dead guy. Or at least everyone says this guy is dead — Woods isn’t conceding that yet — and obviously ne’er-do-wells fake their deaths all the time in Hollywood, so you can’t be too careful. That’s why Woods is using news of the Tweeter’s passing as an opening to unmask the guy’s identity to find out if he’s really gone, and the judge has ordered the defendant’s attorneys, Ken White (of Popehat fame) and Lisa Bloom, to identify their client.
As Voltaire put it, “I disapprove of what you say, so I will persecute you after your death for exercising your right to say it….” Or something like that.
For those who haven’t followed the twists and turns of the Woods libel litigation, an anonymous person on Twitter under the assumed name of “Abe List” called Woods a “cocaine addict” in response to some of the actor’s customarily repugnant Twitter fodder. In response, Woods sued the guy because he’s a crybaby.
In a filing opposing Woods’s request to unmask Abe List, White pointed to a Tweet Woods wrote proclaiming that he’d follow anyone he perceives as libeling him “to the bowels of Hell” — where Woods has lived — and explained:
Mr. Woods asserts that his purpose is legitimate and that he does not seek to harass or abuse Mr. Doe’s survivors,” White wrote. “But Mr. Woods’ own public statements give the lie to that assertion. Mr. Woods wants to do just what he said he wants to do: publicly harass and vilify a dead man and his family. The Motion is meritless, and is a transparent attempt to abuse the discovery process to exact twisted revenge by harassing Mr. Doe’s family
Unfortunately, the judge disagreed.
Apparently trafficking in quasi-birtherism and Islamophobia is fair — as is taking the moral stance of quitting Twitter over the platform’s decision to suspend latter day fascists — but getting mocked for being the kind of dips**t that spews that stuff is an affront that demands justice! Millions of dollars of justice.
Of course Woods is absolutely correct that the death of the writer doesn’t extinguish a libel claim. For example, if anyone spread scurrilous rumors that someone else engaged in physical or sexual abuse, the damage would survive the death of the one who spread the lie. And if these false rumors of drug addiction were truly injurious, Woods has every right to go after them regardless of Abe List’s death. But let’s get real here: just because the law says you “can” do something doesn’t mean you “should,” and his strategy at this point, while legally available to him, runs counter to everything he claims to care about.
Woods supports, if we’re being charitable, a full-throated defense of free speech. The sort of free speech fundamentalism that would stand up to even private censorship (like Twitter account suspensions) of the most vile speech. Libel and slander are certainly actionable — free speech requires legal recourse to police injurious falsehoods — but a public figure famed for hurling insults on Twitter running and hiding behind high-priced lawyers once his “feel-feels” get hurt isn’t exactly conducive to free and open discourse. If anything, weaponizing borderline (at best) libel claims to squelch caustic criticism is a far more dangerous stepping stone to a “freedom for me and not for thee!” universe than any “political correctness” boogeyperson that someone like Woods might kvetch about. When Woods says he can pursue people to the “bowels of Hell,” he’s right. He has the resources to do it and exact a pound of flesh even if his claim fails. That’s a tremendously destructive power for someone hoping to defend a culture of free speech. Sometimes you’ve got to take your lumps for the greater cause when you’re a grown-up. Sticks and stones and all that rot.
And if we’re not being charitable, then maybe that’s exactly the sort of chilled speech environment that Woods wants to see. One where only his opinions matter and no one ever calls him out.
Because, come on…. The guy never meant the “cocaine addict” statement literally, right? It’s a well-worn hyperbolic quip like saying “you’re on crack” when someone says they enjoy sardines. Or, by way of a random example, like when JAMES WOODS HIMSELF wrote on Twitter: “Put down your crack pipe… I wouldn’t want you to spend your precious crack allowance being enlightened.” Or “Well, put down your crack pipe and reread my timelines.”
I guess the powder-crack cocaine disparity applies to online discourse too.
Look, there’s a lot of people out there decrying Woods’s antics as stomach-churning, but, at the risk of putting words in a dead man’s mouth, isn’t this Abe List’s ultimate revenge? With two words, he managed to set his target into a death spiral of reputational self-destruction, alienating everyone in decent society by doggedly pursuing $10 million from a dead guy for an insult that Woods hypocritically employed himself over and over again.
This is the apotheosis of Twitter.
And James Woods has played his role in this divine play to perfection.