A former adjunct instructor at Central Michigan University is suing a student for parodying him on Twitter, setting up a legal battle between @levittlaw and @levittlawyer.
Todd L. Levitt (or @levittlaw), a criminal defense lawyer in Mount Pleasant, Mich., discovered in mid-April that a “Todd Levitt 2.0” (or @levittlawyer) had sprung up on Twitter, sharing posts such as “In lieu of class tomorrow students must listen to the song ‘Ten Crack Commandments’ by Biggie Smalls and write a three sentence reflection” and “Buying me a drink at Cabin karaoke will get you extra credit, but it's not like that matters because you're guaranteed an A in the syllabus.”
An early attempt to identify the behind only yielded the tweet “My favorite #badass movie of all time is ‘Catch Me If You Can.’ ”
When Levitt later discovered Zachary Felton, a student and IT worker in the College of Business Administration and the son of finance and law professor James Felton, was behind the account, he was livid. “See you all in court and hell mother fuckers,” he said in a tweet, telling faculty members in the department to “grab some Vaseline where I’m sending them."
Levitt in late April deleted all the tweets from his account, but Felton captured a series of screenshots in an online album. The fake account is still visible, although it has not tweeted since April 29.
In a complaint filed in the Isabella County trial court, Levitt is suing Felton for several counts of defamation as well as intentional infliction of emotional distress, tortious interference with business relations and unfair competition.
Calling the account “an extreme and outrageous unprovoked attack against [Levitt] in which [Felton] relentlessly endeavored to destroy [his] reputations,” Levitt is seeking more than $25,000 in damages. He received “dozens” of phone calls from concerned clients, according to the complaint, which notes that two potential clients “refused to do business” with him after seeing the fake account.
Felton and his attorney, Gordon M. Bloem, are challenging those claims, saying that Levitt did not suffer any financial setbacks, and that the fake account is protected by the First and 14th Amendments. While Felton joked about legal advice, teaching, drug use and drinking, the response states all the tweets “were constitutionally protected as parody or caricature, were truthful or in the nature of rhetorical hyperbole.” The fake account tweeted at least twice to identify itself as a parody.
The complaint also states that “[Levitt] could not continue as an adjunct professor,” but in a March 31 email -- obtained by Bloem -- to Richard L. Divine, professor and chair of the marketing and hospitality services administration department, Levitt said he would “not be in a position to teach” even though he was scheduled to do so in the fall.
Levitt declined to comment for this article, referring the request to attorney Ghazey H. Aleck II, who did not respond.
The case may come down to whether Levitt’s work as a lawyer and instructor means he should be considered a public figure, which would make it much more difficult for him to prove that Felton libeled him. In a defamation lawsuit, public figures have to prove the person behind the controversial statements either knew they were false or blasted them out without bothering to double-check -- a term known as actual malice. Parody and satire have also been recognized as protected forms of speech when referencing public figures.
If Levitt were to be considered an ordinary citizen, however, he would only need to prove negligence.
In the response, Bloem often makes the case that the “well-known attorney” is a public figure. Beyond his presence on social media, Levitt has represented several Central Michigan students in court and appeared in a number of publicity stunts on campus. On Valentine’s Day, he gave free cab rides to about 100 students, and about a month later, he did the same with a rented van as he shot a pilot episode for a reality show titled “In Todd We Trust.”
Central Michigan did not respond to a request for comment.
Levitt also hosts a weekly radio show, and his YouTube channel is a mix of clips from the studio and antics on campus and around the state.
“You know who I am -- Todd Levitt, right?” Levitt asks a man on the street in one of his 72 YouTube videos.
“Todd Levitt?” the man says.
“Badass lawyer?” Levitt adds.
“That’s right, brother,” Levitt says.
The case is awaiting action from the court.