James Woods Punches The Muppet

There was an episode of the 1990s sitcom Murphy Brown in which Murphy, played by Candace Bergen, appeared on kid's TV show to soften her image. The show features Muppets; it's a transparent stand-in for Sesame Street. Murphy, true to type, loses her temper and punches one of the Muppets, eventually ripping its head from its felt shoulders.

It's rarely productive to punch the Muppet.

Somebody should have reminded James Woods. He's just wound up and thrown a haymaker at a Muppet, suing some anonymous troll on Twitter for suggesting that he's a "cocaine addict." Woods filed a complaint in L.A. County Superior Court claiming $10 million in damages for defamation and false light invasion of privacy. He's represented by Lavely & Singer, as people like him tend to be in making errors of judgment like this.

Woods probably has plenty of money, and can afford to waste it on this sort of enterprise. That means that he won't be ruined if the semi-anonymous Twitter user hits him with an anti-SLAPP motion and wins attorney fees — which could easily be in the mid to high six figures.

Why do I think that Twitter troll "@abelisted" (now deleted) can win an anti-SLAPP motion in defense of this suit? Because he's a Twitter troll, and reasonable people would take his tweets as abuse, hyperbole, and satire, not as a statement of fact. Therefore they can't be defamatory.

Only provable statements of fact can be defamatory. Insults, abuse, hyperbole, overheated rhetoric, satire, irony, and the like cannot be. Whether a particular statement is one of fact or opinion is generally a legal question for the judge, not a question for the jury. Moreover, the judge must evaluate whether the statement is one of fact or opinion based on the context in which the statement was made. "The contextual analysis requires that courts examine the nature and full content of the particular communication, as well as the knowledge and understanding of the audience targeted by the publication." Bently Reserve L.P. v. Papaliolios, 218 Cal. App. 4th 418, 427 (2013). Increasingly, California courts have recognized that online rhetoric is more likely to be interpreted by its audience as cathartic trash-talk, not a factual assertion. This is especially true when it occurs someplace particularly known for overheated rhetoric, like a gripe forum. Furthermore, California courts have recognized that anonymity and semi-anonymity increase the audience perception that statements are rhetorical rather than factual.

Anyone familiar with Twitter knows it to be overrun with trolls, malcontents, comical and satirical characters, and deranged stone-throwers. Every indication is that "@abelisted" falls into this category. In fact, Woods' own complaint does an excellent job of setting up the argument that @abelisted is engaged in hyperbolic insult, not factual assertion:

The owner of the AL Twitter Account has thousands of followers and, since at least December 2014, has undertaken to engage his followers with a campaign of childish name-calling targeted against Woods. In the past, AL has referred to Woods with such derogatory terms as "prick," "joke," "ridiculous" "scum" and "clown-boy."

So, Woods concedes that exaggerated insults by a Twitter troll are the context for the troll eventually saying "cocaine addict James Woods still sniffing and spouting."

Woods compounds this impression by emphasizing and griping about non-factual statements clearly protected by the First Amendment:

Indeed, a search on Google.com for "Abe List James Woods" yields the outrageous statements from the AL Twitter Account as the top two results, including one that calls Woods "a ridiculous scum clown-boy."

Moreover, @abelisted's profile — now deleted, but available through Google cache — explicitly suggests that his tweets are not all to be taken seriously:


Moreover, @abelisted's tweets show him to be a rather banal critic of conservative figures, quick to insult and criticize them. He probably targets James Woods because Woods is an outspoken conservative, something that tends to agitate narrow-minded folks who are used to entertainment figures being outspoken liberals.

In short: the context of @abelist's tweets, especially as emphasized by Woods himself, overwhelmingly suggest that any reasonable reader familiar with that context would take the "cocaine" tweet as part of a pattern of hyperbolic abuse by a trollish partisan, not as a factual assertion meant to be taken at face value. I won't say that Woods' complaint is frivolous or sanctionable, but @abelisted definitely has a very strong anti-SLAPP motion available to him, and Woods could easily wind up paying his attorney fees.

@abelist is a punk, but you get to be a punk in America without being held financially liable for it.

Either James Woods got shitty advice, or James Woods' attorneys failed to convince him to act sensibly. The Streisand Effect has already begun; four to five orders of magnitude more people will hear about @abelisted's stupid tweet than would have without this lawsuit. What's the point?

Don't punch the Muppet, James Woods.

Edited August 28 to add: "John Doe", who runs the @abelisted account, has retained me to represent him in Mr. Woods' suit. I will not be discussing the matter here during the litigation, at least until we have a ruling on an anti-SLAPP motion. As always, my law firm does not control, approve, or endorse anything I write on Popehat; it's a purely personal project.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. Lokiwi says

    He's represented by Lavely & Singer, as people like him tend to be in making errors of judgment like this.

    Wow. No love lost here.

  2. Scott Jacobs says

    Wasn't it a guy from Lavely & Singer that sent a bumptious legal threat to RedState?

  3. EPWJ says


    10 million? Eh, Woods is one of my favorite people and conservatives – but you have to think – Am I doing my political causes and reputation more harm by trying to harm an idiot troll?

    Additionally, portraying cocaine addicts in multiple movies – its going to be hard to claim damage to a public image when you get paid to perform as a flawed cocaine addicted person

    However, like with some trolls that just don't give up and keep on punching the bear – its not unreasonable that Woods could recover a decent amount if he went soft, low key, but firm,

    Still even with all the heated arguments out there – when you accuse someone of a behavior – sure – your defenses are well it was hyperbole, but those defenses sound weak in court consequently those defenses maybe coming to an end – judging by some of the cases I'm seeing, public figure or not.

  4. slapphaver says

    The Twitter account in mention is part of a group of fairly popular absurdist comedians who frequently make insane and ridiculous accusations towards each other, companies, and celebrities. James Woods might be one of a couple hundred if not thousand celebrities that endured such "abuse" from the same group, and in some cases the celebrities even join in (some corporate accounts have also tried to play along but usually get skewered). Punching the muppet indeed.

  5. jimmythefly says

    I thought "Punch the Muppet" might be some sort of bedroom maneuver, but I guess not. Yet.

    Anyhows, I wonder if the term is not quite appropriate here? Seems like one element is that the punchee be less powerful but also more popular and almost universally adored. Sure abelisted is the less powerful, but I don't see him as quite analogous to a muppet in this context.

    Just seems like a "twitter troll" is not quite muppet-like enough for the circumstances, but perhaps I am misunderstanding the term?

  6. ScarletNumber says

    Sorry, not only will @abelisted not succeed in a SLAPP lawsuit, but he will lose the original suit.

    Also, this isn't a free speech issue.

  7. says

    I appreciate your thorough analysis, Scarlet.

    But it's not a SLAPP lawsuit. It's an anti-SLAPP motion. Filed in the same lawsuit.

  8. ShelbyC says

    Ironically, I believe that calling someone a cocaine addict nowadays, in today's PC circles, is, in fact, AbeList.

  9. Sinij says

    Today I learned from reading this blog that cocaine addicts should not sue internet trolls for defamation. This is good to know.

  10. En Passant says

    It's rarely productive to punch the Muppet.

    For mortals, sure.

    But, don't troll Cthulhu on Twitter. Cthulhu will munch the puppet.

  11. Hulinut says

    If a muppet looks at Cthulhu, does just the muppets head explode or does the hand/head of the guy operating it explode too even if he isn't looking at Cthulhu?

  12. Charles Grossman says

    This is a perfect illustration of the Streisand effect's only helping the person who triggered it, without hurting him at all. James Woods is a has-been B-list character actor who's been out of the spotlight and relegated to playing a sad joke version of himself on Family Guy. There's no downside for Woods in having people hear about the stupid tweet and his response to it — and many who hear about it will see Woods as the hero of the story. Suddenly people are talking about Woods again. You can't buy that kind of publicity … oh wait … I guess you can.

  13. MarkL says

    I remember that Murphy Brown episode. It was especially funny if you recall that Candace Bergen's "brother" was Charlie McCarthy.

  14. nodandsmile says


    Empirical tests have demonstrated it depends on both Muppet and Muppeteer. For example, despite the hideous results of Frank and Piggy auto-viewing Hastur and Gonzo trying to prank the King in Yellow, it's a little known fact that Cthulhu was actually converted to pacifism through Kermit and Brian's sense of inner peace (frustrated shuddering on the set of the Muppet Show notwithstanding) and three seasons of Fraggle Rock; later becoming David Bowie 's personal dresser for Labyrinth.

  15. Mikee says

    And another stupid celebrity falls victim to the Streisand Effect. I don't know anyone that had heard about the troll calling Woods a cocaine addict until after the lawsuit was filed, now I don't know anyone that hasn't heard that a troll called Woods a cocaine addict.

  16. Anonymous says

    I understand the precedent from Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, but I'm a little uneasy with calling these twitter messages parody. The Hustler article specifically labels itself a parody. Twitter has guidelines for how to make sure to label yourself a parody account. This is just a guy spewing garbage about people, without indicating that it's parody. I don't think it's reasonable for someone to have to look at the totality of this guys writings, and decide that because he spews so much shit, we shouldn't believe this particular statement. It's just giving pathological liars an out to defame people.

  17. cthulhu says


    Grover. Please, PLEASE let it be Grover. Elmo if that's the best you can do, but try your damnedest for Grover.

  18. Adam Steinbaugh says

    @Anonymous: It's not parody; it's hyperbole. This is either a statement that nobody would take to be an assertion of fact because of its context, or it's a statement from someone nobody would believe has inside knowledge about whether Woods does cocaine and, as a result, there are no damages.

  19. Careless says

    Grover. Please, PLEASE let it be Grover. Elmo if that's the best you can do, but try your damnedest for Grover.

    Grover seems to have been killed off the show, actually. While Elmo gets a full third of it.

    I would definitely punch Elmo first.

  20. Mike Schilling says

    He's represented by Lavely & Singer,

    It's even dumber of Woods if you misread that as Laverne & Shirley.

  21. OrderoftheQuaff says

    I don't see an anti-SLAPP motion here. "Cocaine addict" is qualitatively different from "prick", "scum", "clownboy", etc., because it's falsifiable. I won't get into whether it was a good idea for Woods to sue, but this tactic does have some appeal. When you're in an alley facing a pack of snarling dogs, sometimes you can impress the other dogs by making an example of one of them.

  22. Pete says

    It's Candice not Candace

    And yet the original text has not been corrected.
    Hello flawed, inaccurate, lying, sleazy, lazy internet!
    May I quote you?

  23. barry says

    I do hope it's not Gonzo.

    Context in Twitter is a more convoluted and complicated thing than it is in other web publishing. Tweets regularly and easily get detached from their original context and go much further than just the followers of any particular twit. It is only the smaller audience of twit followers who get the original context.

    If the anti-SLAPP judge decides Twitter might be a contextless medium, or that the overall total context is just "a lot of people saying all kinds of stuff", then the muppet's head goes on a spike on the bridge to warn off other trolls.

    Tweets that would be defamatory if judged as stand-alone statements might even be seen as the kind of low-value speech that is not protected. If a troll can't be nasty and insulting in 140 characters without resorting to malicious false-facts, they should probably look for another occupation/hobby.

    …that nobody would take to be an assertion of fact because of its context

    Most people might not believe it is anything more than hyperbole, but in other twitter contexts, not nobody.

    If James Wood should sue is another question. If it turns out to be some 14 yr old kid, $200 in damages could be reasonable to make the point. And the point is "he does that all the time" might not be a very good defense for anything.

  24. OrderoftheQuaff says

    Barry, the tweeter's own profile says he's a private equity partner affiliated with Harvard. In the remote event that this is true, wouldn't it be fun if James Woods splashed his shit all over twitter? I don't read twitter, but the popes of Popehat have kept us abreast of amusing stories before. This might help alleviate my boredom until the apocalypse comes.

  25. Glenn Logan says

    Perhaps Woods is smarter than you think. I'm not a lawyer, but it seems difficult to judge the comment as a statement of fact until we know who it is making it. If @abelisted is someone in a position to know whether or not Woods is a cocaine user, then that casts the comment in a completely different light. Yes, the odds of this being the case are vanishingly small to nonexistant, but as long as he is anonymous, the status of the tweet as a factual representation is in at least arguable doubt.

    Consider the following sequence of events based on the above:

    – the matter proceeds to discovery, where Woods learns the identity of @abelisted.
    – Woods sees he is just a troll, and drops the lawsuit.
    – Woods then outs @abelisted on Twitter. If all goes Woods' way, @abelisted loses his job and future employment prospects are harmed.

    It seems to me under such a scenario, even if @abelisted did win an anti-SLAPP motion (assuming it was not granted prior to discovery) he would at most be out tens of thousands with an opportunity to damage the reputation and income prospects of his abuser. Worth it? Not my call, but maybe.

    This is the kind of thing that Twitter mobs do to people all the time. It would be interesting to see one of their kind hoist on their own rhetorical petard.

  26. TXDave says

    @Careless: Grover's still around (as of Season 45) – he pops up now and again as "Super Grover Two-Point-Oh!". The only superhero that you don't want to show up.

  27. CrushedGrid says

    Only provable statements of fact can be defamatory.

    Maybe I'm just parsing that wrong, but I thought generally speaking a statement of fact can't be defamatory. I thought it had to be a false statement of fact, something that obviously wouldn't be provable since it's false.

  28. Sami says

    So the suit itself already lays out a bunch of reasons why it's bullshit and should be dismissed…

    Could there be Consequences for this? Isn't there some kind of ethical violation involved when lawyers are, apparently, working for both sides of a litigation?

  29. mcalex says

    @CrushedGrid 'Statements of fact' != statements that are true. Ken repeatedly distinguishes statements of fact from: insults, abuse, hyperbole, overheated rhetoric, satire, irony, and the like.

  30. Dragonmum says

    Glenn, Barry, Quaff – Here's one way I look at it: If you preceed the questionable speech with "pony-loving, paste eating…" and it flows, you are most likely looking at insult and hyperbole. For example: statements such as "He's a pony-loving, paste-eating Cheetos addict" "He's a pony-loving, paste-eating anorexic narcissist" roll off the tongue smoothly, as opposed to "He's a pony-loving, paste-eating vocal free speech opponent" or "He's a pony-loving, paste-eating well-known user of medical marijuana". Just not the same. The "provability" of a throw-away statement on a self-proclaimed "opinionated" Twitter account has nothing to do with protection under the first ammendment. Maybe the phrase "pony-loving, paste-eating" should be required to preceed hyperbolic insults just so clueless twits and attention-seeking washed-up actors can recognize them, instead of requiring a judge to laugh in their face and grant an anti-SLAPP motion.

  31. Glenn Logan says

    @Dragonmum – I totally get that.

    But it seems to me that without knowing the identity of the speaker, the veracity, or hyperbolic intent thereof would be subject to doubt. For example, suppose I wrote that I guy I hated for years for whatever reason was a "pony loving, paste-eating douchenozzle" then followed up with "and on top of all that, he's a meth-head!", I'd be in @abelisted's exact spot.

    Except in my example, I know perfectly well he's not a meth-head and wish to defame him by suggesting he is. Still hyperbole? Maybe, but the first statement is not like the other. The first is demonstrable hyperbole, the second might not be, especially considering the fact that I intended it as defamatory.

    In the instant case, since we don't know who is speaking, we can't really know whether or not he/she was speaking in a hyperbolic manner or had an intent to something nefarious. So I suggest that until we know who is doing the talking, we are only speculating as to the nature of the comment.

  32. Niall says

    @Glenn Logan,

    I'd see your "and on top of that" itself as introduction of hyperbole. The rantings of a twitter account which the lawsuit itself says contains nothing but vitriolic hyperbolic slew of insults would make most people believe this statement follows in the same light. If the assertion was made in a sober, careful post about the person, then it might be actionable. (Say, appearing in a newspaper article that drops "The cocaine addict First Lastname…" out of nowhere, without giving a source; or else, a tweet from an account that does not generally indulge in insults suddenly going "Sad to hear of First Lastname's cocaine habit, hang in there"; in those conditions, there would be a far likelier cause for remedy.)

    I'm amused that the lawsuit never states what kind of damages have occurred, only that they might. Being shunned is demonstrable; being refused work is demonstrable. It's unlikely that ten million dollars in actual demonstrable missed costs or injurious costs have happened in the time between the tweet and the suit being dropped (14 days). The constant use of italics when naming just how many followers exist makes me read a theatrical gasp after each one. Not very professional-looking. And who are those Does 2 to 10? Para 6 on Page 3 makes my head dizzy in trying to figure out what, if anything, they might be.

    Oh, and the lawyers are asking for a five-day(!) trial with jury. Just how long are they expecting to talk? (Judging from the torrent of verbiage in the lawsuit, a long time saying nothing…)

  33. albert says

    "Coke(tm) addict and all around arrogant douchebag has-been B actor _____ _____"

  34. KronWeld says

    Well, now we know one of the thing you've been busy with (I'm sure there is a lot more that we'll never know about.)

    Best of luck and tell us what you can when you can.

  35. KronWeld says

    @Matthew Cline Do you know if the opposition filing is posted anywhere else? I can never get scribd to show anything but blank pages. I'm sure I'm blocking something, but I can't figure out what.


    For those who don't know, Ken is representing "@abelisted" in this court battle.

  36. wisco says

    Oooh, someone's gonna get them some sweet, sweet James-Woods dollars! Wonder if they'll smell as alkaline as I would image…