First Amendment Implications Following the Megan Thee Stallion-Tory Lanes Trial

DARA DURDIC—In late December of 2022, Daystar Peterson (“Peterson”)–better known as Tory Lanez–was found guilty on three charges for shooting Megan Thee Stallion (“Megan”) in July of 2020. Megan testified that she and Peterson got into an argument while riding together in a vehicle after a party, and Peterson shot her in the foot after she left the car. The shooting resulted in Megan’s hospitalization and a later surgery. Initially, Megan chose to stay quiet about the incident and the exact details of that night, but she eventually came forward and revealed that Peterson had shot her. Peterson pled not guilty and vigorously denied any foul play. 

As is common with events involving celebrities, people were quick to publicly take sides about who they thought was in the wrong, and many called into question the veracity of Megan’s allegations. For instance, blogger Milagro Gramz has been criticized for posting abusive content. Gramz had posted a photo of a Los Angeles Police Department report, which stated that the first doctor who treated Megan found that the cuts in her foot were a result of stepping on glass–prompting Peterson supporters to state that Megan had lied about being shot. However, Gramz had omitted the key part of the report–that it was written before Megan underwent surgery and doctors found bullet fragments in her foot. In defense of posting such misinformation, Gramz noted that her reporting was intended to be “comedic” rather than factual.  

Following the spread of misinformation, Megan’s legal team noted that it would pursue legal action against the bloggers who had posted falsities about Megan wrongfully accusing Peterson. This opens the door to a discourse not just about the defamation elements of this case, but of the underlying implications of social media usage in the wake of high-publicity trials. Are there limits for First Amendment protections for those spreading misinformation about trials? While many social media platforms have installed censorship mechanisms for users posting misinformation or hate speech, the nature of social media—namely, the astonishing speed with which content can be liked or reposted—makes it so that misinformation can spread well before it is taken down or refuted. More gray area arises when one considers that false speech intended to be “comedic” may not necessarily have the same motives as false speech intended to be false speech. 

This case also exposed the complicated intersection of an influencer’s right to post their content and the repeated harassment and disbelief of female celebrities. Many have noted the recent disparate treatment of famous women–including Megan, Amber Heard, and Meghan Markle–as indicative of the backlash that happens when women infiltrate a “hyper masculine space.” In the age of repeated free speech battles, there seems to be no clear-cut answer on how to move forward and prevent misinformation from spreading like electronic wildfire before trials even begin. Various solutions have been put forward, but not without criticism. Certain sites, like YouTube, post alternative information to supplement fake information, and guide their users to focus on the correct information rather than the accompanying falsities. This, of course, does not guarantee that users will focus on—or even see—the true information, and the juxtaposition might solely serve to confuse. Many sites also utilize algorithms to detect and remove false speech, which a high percentage of users have opposed, opining that doing so has erroneously removed key information from websites. Moreover, many users have called the use and effectiveness of such algorithms into question—and as the Megan-Peterson trial happened as less than one month ago, these users’ concerns are not without merit. 

As of now, Megan’s legal team has not officially filed any actions against the bloggers. But this case will likely not be the last instance of social media spreading disinformation about a high-profile case. The Internet has reached an obstacle in addressing “the right to be an influencer” against “the right to be an influencer who lies.” Perhaps social media has pushed us to a time to amend the First Amendment.