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How can James Woods sue an anonymous Twitter user?

James Woods

James Woods’ acting credits include roles in “Once Upon a Time in America,” “Casino” and “Ghosts of Mississippi.” Above, Woods in 2011.

(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Actor James Woods filed a $10-million lawsuit this week against an anonymous Twitter user, alleging defamation and invasion of privacy.

According to the suit, the user of the Twitter handle “Abe List” falsely called Woods a cocaine addict during a malicious, months-long campaign “to discredit and damage Woods’ reputation.”

What does Woods’ lawsuit say?

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Los Angeles County Superior Court, accuses the person behind “Abe List” of mounting a smear campaign visible to Internet users worldwide, including Woods’ hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers.

In addition to alleging that Woods, 68, used an illegal drug, the suit says, “Abe List” referred to the Academy Award-nominated actor with terms including “joke,” “ridiculous,” “scum” and “clown-boy.”

The campaign began in December 2014 or earlier, it says.

Furthermore, the suit says, the Twitter user violated Woods’ right to privacy by placing him “before the public in a false and outrageous light.”

Twitter has suspended the Abe List account.

How can you sue an anonymous person?

The procedure for seeking justice against an anonymous Internet user varies from state to state, legal experts said.

In California, you can’t just ask the Internet service provider, or ISP, to turn over the user, said Leila Knox, an attorney with the San Rafael-based First Amendment Coalition.

“You have to go straight after the individual” who posted defamatory statements, she said.

First, the plaintiffs must file a complaint, then prove that they have grounds to move ahead with a lawsuit, said Mark Lemley, director of Stanford Law School’s law, science and technology program.

The next step is to subpoena the ISP, which must alert the user that he or she is being sued and that there is a request for the user’s identity to be revealed.

If the ISP doesn’t want to give up the user’s identity, it can file a motion to quash the subpoena, the legal experts said.

What are the challenges in suing anonymous Internet users?

If such cases make it to trial, there is typically still an uphill battle, Lemley and Knox said.

“The hardest part is proving that the statements were made with bad intent” and were not accidental, said Lemley, who spoke in general and not in reference to the Woods case. “It also depends on how careful the poster has been to cover their tracks.”

Added to this is the fact that “anonymous speech is protected under the 1st Amendment,” said Knox. “One has the right to go out and speak and not be identified.”

Are such lawsuits ever successful?

Yes.

For example, in April 2012, a jury awarded almost $14 million in damages to a Texas couple after anonymous Internet users posted thousands of comments about them, accusing them of being ”sexual deviants, molesters, and drug dealers,” according to ABC News.

The accusations against Mark and Rhonda Lesher were posted on Topix, once self-described as "the country's largest local forum site,” ABC News said.

Follow @AMSimmons1 for video journalism and more.


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