Royal Oak attorney brings special skills to online defamation law


by Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Online defamation is an important field for advising individual and corporate clients, notes Bill Burdett, an attorney with Howard and Howard in Royal Oak who concentrates his practice in commercial, probate, and free speech litigation in Michigan and across the country.

“Before the Internet, it was more difficult for an individual to become the target of a defamation lawsuit because it wasn’t so easy to publish potentially defamatory statements. Now, any individual can use the Internet to widely publish potentially defamatory statements,” he explains. “While I believe the free speech afforded by the First Amendment should be given wide latitude, online speakers need to accept significant responsibility to ensure their speech does not defame or invade the privacy of others.”

In Ghanam v. Does in 2014, Burdett (shown below) successfully opposed a public official’s attempt to unmask certain anonymous, online speakers critical of his efforts. “Emphasizing the long history of anonymous criticism of public officials in the country, the Michigan Court of Appeals confirmed that a public official faces a high bar for unmasking online critics without demonstrating that the speech in question is actually defamatory,” he says.

Highly skilled in defamation law in Michigan, Burdett has been involved in every case developing the standards for anonymous online defamation lawsuits in the Michigan Court of Appeals. He has also represented defendants in state and federal constitutional lawsuits regarding defamation, and has worked with national litigation teams to defend and uphold constitutional freedoms.

“In the context of the First Amendment, it’s refreshing to represent individuals and publications seeking to preserve their constitutional rights, which have included Freedom of Information Act requests and Open Meetings Act matters,” he says.

Named to dBusiness “Top Lawyers,” Burdett enjoys the challenges of litigation.  “Each case – be it commercial, probate, or constitutionally driven – provides a unique set of facts and law that require the litigator to become an expert in a new field,” he says.

In addition to his litigation practice, his varied projects have included resolving a nearly $1 billion pool of claims in the liquidation of a major automotive supplier, representing borrowers in the refinancing of two mixed-use skyscrapers; representing a developer in negotiations with the City of Detroit for a multi-acre residential development; and negotiating on behalf of the purchaser for the sale and development of a multi-million-dollar building downtown.

Probate litigation is another area of practice for Burdett, who recently was named the chair of the Probate Litigation Section for the Detroit Metropolitan Bar Association.

“I enjoy helping families navigate the complicated, and often contentious field of trust and estate litigation, often while they are grieving and/or determining how to care for elderly parents who may no longer comprehend their situation,” he says.  “It’s a field that is often overlooked even though hundreds of millions of dollars flow through disputes in the probate courts.” 

One particularly challenging case involved directing the investigation and litigation regarding a multimillion-dollar estate with incomplete documentation to sort out complicated holdings and distribute the proceeds to numerous local charities. Burdett noted it was especially gratifying to deliver large, six-figure checks to local charities as a result of his work.

Burdett, who joined Howard and Howard in January, was inspired to study law by a close family friend who was the local circuit court judge in his hometown.

“When I mentioned to him I was thinking about pursuing a career in the law, but I was concerned about the constant claims of ‘too many lawyers,’ he told me ‘there’s always room for a good, honest lawyer.’ I’ve always tried to live up to a standard that I think he would expect of attorneys who appear before him,” he says.

After earning his undergraduate degree from Yale University, Burdett was awarded his J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School, where he particularly enjoyed the caliber of the academics.

“It was a place where you could really explore the ideas, theories, and underpinnings of the law,” he says.

In his leisure time, he enjoys collecting books and reading, travel, and spending time with his wife, Mary.

 A native of the community of Oscoda, where the Au Sable River meets Lake Huron, Burdett now makes his home in Birmingham.

“Despite its flaws, people maintain a high degree of pride in Detroit—I’m proud to have settled in the Detroit metropolitan region,” he says.

He works hard to advance the City of Detroit, and enjoys supporting it in all aspects. “I think the City of Detroit is a beautiful place with wonderful people, but we all have to work together to bring all areas of the city back,” he says.
He has served on the board of directors of the Detroit Institute of Arts sine 2011.

“I’ve always enjoyed the arts, and I wanted to get involved with the DIA because I think art, and especially the world-renowned collection at the DIA, is a central piece of the pride of Detroit and one that should be preserved for generations to come,” he says.

He also serves as chair of the board for the Greening of Detroit, an organization that improves the quality of life for Detroiters by re-purposing vacant land to create beautiful and productive green spaces.

“I support the Greening of Detroit because I think it’s doing great work in the neighborhoods throughout the City. With its tree planting programs, volunteers have the opportunity to see neighborhoods they may not visit, and work alongside people who live and work in those neighborhoods,” he says.  “Also, the high school and adult workforce development programs are offering training and jobs to people who might otherwise not find it easy to get jobs.”