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Experts say La Russa's Twitter suit was long shot

Sunday, June 7, 2009 | 8:26 p.m. CDT
St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa and Twitter have reached a settlement in his lawsuit against the social networking site. "There is a law against improperly using a person's name without authorization and it wasn't authorized," La Russa said. "You can't sue everybody for criticizing you, but it seemed like that was the perception. It was improper use of the name, but it's been settled."

Tony La Russa's lawsuit against Twitter was a lot like kicking dirt on the umpire: He got a lot of attention, and he made his point, but he wasn't likely to win the argument.

"His chances are probably slim" if the case went to court, said Michael McCann, a Vermont Law School professor and contributor to the Sports Law Blog. "There were strong indications that this is parody. And given the content of the tweets, I don't think that anybody would think it was actually Tony La Russa that was doing this."

Only four people had signed up to follow the "TonyLaRussa" Twitter account when the real St. Louis Cardinals manager, a lawyer and two-time World Series champion, decided he couldn't ignore the offensive messages going out under his name. He sued the social networking site and the unidentified impostors who made light of drunken driving and the death of two Cardinals pitchers.

The potential court showdown between the manager who pioneered the three-out save and the social networking site that limits users to 140 characters was averted on Friday when the site agreed to pay his legal fees and make a donation to his Animal Rescue Foundation.

"There is a law against improperly using a person's name without authorization, and it wasn't authorized," La Russa said before Friday's game against the Cincinnati Reds. "You can't sue everybody for criticizing you, but it seemed like that was the perception: That I or we were upset with the criticism. No, it was improper use of the name."

Internet interaction can be a modern Wild West, where skepticism is the rule and users are best served if they assume that the e-mail from TheQueenofEngland@Yahoo.com is unlikely to be authentic (and she probably wouldn't ask for your bank account number, anyway). But the same principles that govern fraud and defamation off-line apply on the internet.

Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware was surprised to learn that a Twitter account in his name was giving false updates on his contract negotiations. Followers of a fake Ben Roethlisberger were told that the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback has skin cancer.

La Russa's lawsuit claimed that the fake Twitter account caused him "significant emotional distress," diluted and damaged the value of his name and implied that he endorses Twitter while diverting internet traffic from the animal rescue site he does endorse. La Russa said his animal rescue site might end up taking over the Twitter address.

"I wouldn't do anything with it, but ARF might," he said.

Many athletes and celebrities are attracted to Facebook and Twitter because they can communicate directly with fans, as cyclist Lance Armstrong did to announce the birth of his son on Thursday night. But every new mode of internet communication causes new problems, and social networking is no exception.

In 2006, a 13-year-old Missouri girl hanged herself after receiving nasty online comments from a MySpace friend who turned out to be fictional. No case in sports has turned as tragic, but athletes and coaches are increasingly aware of impostors who can affect their reputations.

Someone else grabbed NBA star Shaquille O'Neal's name on Twitter, so the real Shaq picked The_Real_Shaq and accumulated more than 1.16 million followers. There are a half-dozen Michael Phelps accounts, some of them obviously fake and some purporting to be real, even though the swimming star says none are genuine.

"I've never Twittered in my life. Excuse me: I've never tweeted in my life," Phelps said in May. "I've never been on that site."

The comments attributed to La Russa made him seem cavalier about the deaths of Cardinals pitchers Josh Hancock, who died in a drunken-driving accident, and Darryl Kile, who died in a Chicago hotel room of a heart problem. In one tweet dated April 19, the fake TonyLaRussa said: "Lost 2 out of 3, but we made it out of Chicago without one drunk driving incident or dead pitcher."

Off to the side on the TonyLaRussa page, where users list biographical information, the impostors posted a link to Mothers Against Drunk Driving and wrote "Bio Parodies are fun for everyone."

Wendy Seltzer, a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, said the Communications Decency Act protects internet service providers from most liability in these cases. La Russa might have had a better case against the pranksters who posted the material, she said.

La Russa also claimed the site falsely implied he endorses it because of large print on the top of the page stating, "Hey there! TonyLaRussa is using Twitter." Celebrities have had some success with false endorsement claims, with famous cases including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bette Midler and Wheel of Fortune's Vanna White, who sued Samsung over an ad in which a blond-wigged robot turned letters on a game show.

But La Russa would have had to show that the implied endorsement caused him damage.

"If only four people saw that before he managed to make his complaint, it's highly unlikely his reputation was damaged in any relevant community," Seltzer said.

The fake account has since been removed from Twitter, as has a similarly snarky account called NotTonyLaRussa; a search for TonyLaRussa turns up nothing but Twitter members complaining about his lawsuit.

Seltzer said that the Cardinals manager, a public figure who meets daily with reporters, should have found another way to make his point.

"There are plenty of ways to make the public case that this was never my account, and I find it hateful that somebody would say these things under my name," she said, "without filing a frivolous lawsuit."

 


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