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Last week, film director Spike Lee retweeted (to his 250,000 followers) the home address of an elderly couple in Florida named David and Elaine McClain. Lee mistakenly thought the couple were related to now infamous neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman. Turns out, although the McClains do have a son named William George Zimmerman, they are not related to the suspect in the Trayvon Martin case, and their son has not even lived at their address since 1995. Lee’s tweet forced the couple to flee their home after neighbors and others threatened them with violence. The McClains had to move into a hotel after receiving hate mail and media attention, and they have now hired a lawyer.
Soon after the retweet, Lee tweeted the following apology: ”I Deeply Apologize To The McClain Family For Retweeting Their Address. It Was A Mistake. Please Leave The McClain’s In Peace. Justice In Court.” The McClains’ lawyer has not said whether or not the couple will sue. Their son has said that he fears for his parents’ safety, in the event that their address gets into the wrong hands. This incident is concerning not only because Lee tweeted the address of an innocent couple in their 70s, but also because he seemed to encourage hateful vigilantism by tweeting the address at all.
Twitter rules forbid users from posting people’s confidential information, “such as credit card numbers, street address or Social Security/National Identity numbers,” absent their express consent. The rules state: ”If someone has posted your private information on Twitter, please submit a Support ticket….Once you’ve submitted your ticket, we’ll email you a ticket confirmation with more information.” In this case, Twitter removed the content after a request from the McClains. But could Twitter have done anything more to protect these non-Twitter-users from a potentially dangerous tweet?
The McClains may have cognizable tort claims against the man who originally found and tweeted the address, and against Lee for retweeting it to a very large audience, but can they sue Twitter? The social networking website’s terms state that “[u]nder no circumstances will Twitter be liable in any way for any Content, including, but not limited to, any errors or omissions in any Content, or any loss or damage of any kind incurred as a result of the use of any Content posted, emailed, transmitted or otherwise made available via the Services or broadcast elsewhere.” It seems like Twitter will be immune from suit here, because they followed the requisite notice-and-takedown procedures to remove the McClains’ information.
As a big fan of Twitter, I have to say that the spilling of information like this may unfortunately be the nature of the beast. I think Spike Lee’s decision to retweet was ridiculous, but I do not think Twitter should suffer the consequences if the McClains are able to collect damages. The website investigated the claim immediately and removed the content as soon as a violation was confirmed. Lee, on the other hand, may have more explaining to do.
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