A porn star Twitter war might set a precedent for future cyberbullying victims

What do camels, anti-SLAPP motions, and awards show red carpet brawls have in common?

They’re all part of a legal saga between two of porn’s biggest names, Lisa Ann and Nikki Benz. And despite the titillation value of a court battle involving the now-retired star of Who’s Nailin’ Paylin and the porn star that almost became Rob Ford’s replacement as mayor of Toronto, the case also sets an interesting—and potentially dangerous—legal precedent when it comes to cyber harassment.

On Monday, the Los Angeles County Court threw out a harassment case brought against Nikki Benz after a Twitter scuffle erupted into an all-out war between the two performers. The nasty fight started in December of last year, with Lisa Ann initially mocking Benz’s camel-filled Dubai birthday celebration on Instagram and suggesting that Benz was actually there working as an escort.

“Dubai is one of the most beautiful and exotic cities in the world,” Benz told the Daily Dot in an exclusive interview today. “Porn stars like to vacation too. Being called out as a hooker on social media by another porn star for hundreds of thousands of people to see was and is outrageous.”

Benz retaliated with a series of vicious tweets that culminated in Benz claiming that Lisa Ann’s older brother molested her. Multiple responses from fans called the tweet “inappropriate” and “pure evil.”

According to the legal complaint, which was shared with the Daily Dot, Lisa Ann alleged that Benz went beyond online harassment and threatened her at the Jan. 15 XBiz Awards, an adult entertainment industry awards show. She also claimed that Benz either directly called or encouraged others to call her at home and threatened her life—a claim which Benz denied in an interview with the Daily Dot.

Lisa Ann’s attorney, Morgan Pietz, did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.

“The XBiz Awards show video submitted by [Benz] shows that, while [Lisa Ann] was on stage presenting an award, someone yelled, ‘Get off the stage,’ and later shows that [Benz] again made fun of the appearance of [Lisa Ann’s] breasts,” Lisa Ann’s complaint reads. 

“[Lisa Ann] also alleges that she did not attend an industry event in Las Vegas on January 24, 2015, where she was scheduled to receive a lifetime acheivment award… because [Benz] had ‘made it clear on January 15,2015 that she would make good on her threats to physically harm [Lisa Ann] if she attended.’”

On Feb. 13, Lisa Ann obtained a restraining order banning Benz from coming within 100 yards of her. Benz fought the order, and that’s when things got interesting from a legal standpoint.

Benz’s lawyer filed what’s known as an anti-SLAPP motion. California law, in reference to Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) cases, basically says that lawsuits can be thrown out if they are found to be an effort to silence the free speech rights of the defendant—but only if that speech is an issue of public interest in some significant way.

The court agreed with Benz that the Twitter feud and the fight at the Xbiz Awards were in the public interest, because it took place on Twitter (a public forum) and because it resulted in media coverage.

“We are very happy with the result. What [the case] establishes is that, if you are going to claim cyber harassment for statements on Twitter, you need to consider the First Amendment implications,” attorney Stephen M. Kernan, who represented Benz in the case, told the Daily Dot. “Nikki’s statements were not anything that could be called a real threat.”

But not everyone is happy about the legal precedent set here, which appears to be the first time California anti-SLAPP law has been used to fight cyber harassment. To be clear, this case hinged on two parts: the online nature of the harassment and whether or not Benz actually harassed Lisa Anne at all. The court found the claim unconvincing on both counts, citing Lisa Ann’s inability to prove that Benz’s actions were harassing enough to warrant a restraining order. 

Mary Anne Franks, the legislative and tech policy director at the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, said that the case “defines public interest so broadly that it is difficult to imagine what would not fall within it.”

“Consider what this ruling would mean for other scenarios involving real harassment or abuse,” wrote Franks in an email to the Daily Dot today, “What about the naked, unconscious women whose bodies were featured without consent on the PSU frat’s Facebook page? Would their attempts to limit further abuse by the men who exposed them be blocked by an anti-SLAPP motion on the basis that Facebook is a kind of public forum and the sexual antics of frat boys is a matter of concern to a definable portion of the public?”

Besides, part of the argument for “public interest” in the case rests on the fact that there was media coverage of the Twitter war. (In fact, the Daily Dot is specifically mentioned in the complaint.) But does this mean that just by virtue of writing about any given topic, a reporter effectively alters the legal outcome of the case?

“Especially considering that we now live in an age of what could be called micro- and even nano-media, pretty much any topic can easily find its way to some kind of media outlet,” said Franks.

Creepy law-related stuff aside, the actual beef between Nikki Benz and Lisa Ann doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere either.

“Lisa Ann sued and disparaged my name publicly and professionally,” Benz said, “There will be no truce.”

An earlier version of this article stated that Franks was an attorney. She is actually the legislative and tech policy director at CCRI. 

Photo via Lisa Ann/Twitter, Nikki Benz/Twitter

Mary Emily O'Hara

Mary Emily O'Hara

Mary Emily O'Hara is an LGBTQ reporter. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, NBC Out, Daily Dot, Broadly, Vice, the Daily Beast, the Advocate, Huffington Post, DNAinfo, Al Jazeera, and Portland's Pulitzer Prize-winning newsweekly Willamette Week, among other outlets.