February 20, 2018
Punctuation, Lesson One: From the James Woods School of Online Defamation
by Susan Rella
Hello students, and welcome to the James Woods School of Online Defamation. This course is Defamation 101: How To Call People Nazis Without Calling Them Nazis.
Now, you’re all here because you want to learn from the master of Twitter trolling, James Woods. Topics this semester will include: how to call a reverend and civil rights activist a “disgusting pig,” how to insinuate that a well-known magazine publisher jerked off to the Boston marathon bomber, and how to suggest a respected news anchor who happens to be gay is not using logic and intelligence so much as revealing the shifting position of his butt-plug — all from the comfort and relative safety of Twitter! Yay!
But, Professor! you may ask. How can we speak our brilliant, wise minds about such important issues as whether or not sitting congresspersons with whom we disagree are dressed as “saloon hookers”?
Ah, grasshopper… the answer was right in front of you all along, in the very first line of this post. Follow the master, take a lesson from the true hero of Twitter, and, perhaps, if you’re as dumb of a shit as you appear to be, couch your insults as questions? Because that approach has unequivocally worked for Woods.
Just ask Portia Boulger, who last year brought a lawsuit against the actor after he tweeted a photo of her next to a photo of a different—but similar-looking—woman giving a Nazi salute at a 2016 rally for then-candidate Donald Trump. “So-called #Trump ‘Nazi’ is a #BernieSanders agitator/operative?” the tweet read, taking cues from an earlier tweet by well-known sci-fi-scene buzzkill Vox Day. Woods has since deleted it.
As Eriq Gardner reported last month in the Hollywood Reporter, Woods’s claim that his tweet did not defame anyone—he was merely asking a question, inviting his intrepid Twitter followers to draw their own conclusions—has been validated by federal trial judge George C. Smith in a decision filed on January 24th. “Were it not for the question mark at the end of the text, this would be an easy case,” the judge writes. He adds, “But the question mark cannot be ignored,” citing a finding by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that a question mark, when used to punctuate an otherwise potentially defamatory statement, “indicates a defendant’s lack of definitive knowledge about the issue.”
Smith goes on to note that “if readers interpret the tweet as Woods asking a question—‘Is the person pictured giving the Nazi salute, in fact, Boulger?’—the question itself cannot be proven or disproven because questions, by their nature, lack truth values.” Sounds like he’s never been on Twitter.
Of course, we all know Woods wasn’t merely raising an intriguing question for his followers. As Star magazine reports, Woods waited several days to delete the tweet, even after another user correctly identified the Nazi saluter, subjecting Boulger to prolonged and unnecessary harassment.
So, is a sniveling far-right provocateur hiding behind punctuation for protection from responsibility for his actions? Seems pretty open-and-shut, but we at the James Woods School of Online Defamation choose to end that premise with a question mark, to avoid further litigation
And now, dear students, we’re out of time. Now, for next week’s class, please read Chapter Two in your text: “Septagenarians hitting on literal teenagers: are they all predatory, virulently nauseating cokeheads?”
Susan Rella is the Director of Production at Melville House, and a former bookseller.