Tenants Take Beefs to the Tweets

Rent it Right

by Janet Portman, Inman News

Q: I live in a large apartment complex near my university. Management is very poor here: they don’t respond to repair requests; they close the Twitterlaundry and pool facilities regularly; and they don’t keep the common areas clean.

When the tenants have bad experiences, we’ve taken to tweeting about it to each other and our friends.

Can we get into legal trouble for this? –Jason K.

A: Whether you face possible legal liability for the content of your tweets depends, first, on what you say. On this point, the law is rather clear: If your tweets are clearly expressions of opinion, or are factually true, you have nothing to fear.

For example (please excuse my failure to use only 140 characters), if you were to say, “I think this property is poorly run and management is taking advantage of us as students,” most judges would see that as an expression of your opinion, which they’ll protect as your right to free speech.

Or, if you were to say, “Management is embroiled in a rent strike with tenants, and have been sued by several,” and if these statements were factually true, you’d be in the clear.

However, you may face liability for defamation if your tweets are both untrue and damage the reputation of the person or organization you’re tweeting about. You’d be on thin ice, for instance, if you said that management never responds to repair requests (if in fact they do, albeit randomly or tardily), and management were able to show that they had lost tenants as a result of your remarks.

Courts are just beginning to hear cases brought by upset subjects of tweets. An apartment management company in Chicago has been sued by a tenant who claimed that her apartment had mold. The management company claimed that her tweet — “Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? (Management) thinks it’s OK” — was both false and damaging to its reputation.

But even if the company is correct on both scores, the fact that the message came in a tweet may affect the outcome. Does the forced bluntness of a tweet message somehow give notice to the listener that the message should be taken with a grain of salt? If so, perhaps tweets are to be understood differently than, say, a lengthy and reasoned newspaper piece, even if the message from each is roughly the same.

These are some of the issues judges will begin to wrestle with as cases make their way through the courts.

There is one precaution you might consider, which might help you in the event the management company gets litigious: Make your tweets private, rather than public. That way, only a limited number of people will see them. Because damages (the amount of money a judge or jury would order you to pay the management company as compensation for being wronged) are measured in part by how many people viewed the message (as well as its impact), you can see how limiting your audience will lessen the hit.

Janet Portman is an attorney and managing editor at Nolo. She specializes in landlord/tenant law and is co-author of “Every Landlord’s Legal Guide” and “Every Tenant’s Legal Guide.” She can be reached at [email protected].

Copyright 2009 Janet Portman
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