Did an Associated Press reporter commit a foul against an NBA referee earlier this year by defaming him on Twitter during a league game? On March 14, 2011, National Basketball Association official Bill Spooner filed a federal defamation case against Associated Press sports beat reporter Jon Krawczynski for a brief item that Krawczynski wrote on his Twitter account that suggested Spooner was officiating a game dishonestly. During an NBA game between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Houston Rockets on January 24, 2011, Krawczynski tweeted (twote?) that Spooner told Minnesota coach Kurt Rambis after an allegedly bad call against a Minnesota player that Rambis would "get it back," and that Spooner went on to compensate for the incorrect call with a "make-up" call against Houston.
Spooner says that although he had a brief verbal exchange with Rambis about the foul call, he said nothing to the coach about giving anything back to the Timberwolves. His lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, says Krawczynski defamed him by telling Krawczynski's Twitter followers in effect that Spooner had engaged in a "form of game fixing." Spooner discusses in his complaint that the NBA was recently caught up in a controversy involving former ref Tim Donaghy, who pleaded guilty in federal court in 2007 after being accused of betting on games that he officiated.
The NBA itself discouraged the lawsuit, although it doesn't believe Spooner actually cheated either. According to a league spokesman, "We investigated the content of the tweet when it appeared, found it to be without substance, and informed Mr. Spooner that we considered the matter closed. We subsequently advised Mr. Spooner's lawyer that we did not think suing a journalist over an incorrect tweet would be productive."
The lawsuit raises plenty of interesting questions. First, is Spooner a "public figure" for libel purposes, or, alternatively, did Krawczynski's tweet implicate a matter of "public concern"? Spooner's defamation lawyers clearly don't want him to be treated as a public figure, cognizant of the higher hurdles public-figure plaintiffs must overcome in defamation actions. They make a point of stating in the complaint that Spooner "does not grant media interviews" and that he "eschews contact with the public." If the court treats Spooner as a public figure, the First Amendment would protect Krawczynski's statement unless it was made with knowledge that it was false, or with reckless disregard for its truth or falsity.
Did Spooner suffer any harm from the tweet? The NBA says it disregarded the statement. Moreover, Twitter is an ephemeral medium, and Krawczynski had only about 2,000 followers at the time. Was there any measurable damage to Spooner's reputation? Some say the lawsuit is ill-advised due to the lack of harm. But you know what? If what Spooner alleges is true, this is a solid case. Defamation law does not require him to prove actual damage to his reputation. In circumstances such as this, where an allegedly false statement relates directly to a plaintiff's fitness to perform the duties of his job, harm to reputation is presumed and requires no proof.
It's not only basketball fans who will be watching to see how this one turns out.