Sunday, March 01, 2009

Libel Ruling Protects Anonymous Comments

Maryland's highest appellate court has issued a significant ruling underscoring the First Amendment's protection of anonymous comments posted online. The Maryland Court of Appeals decision, Independent Newspapers v. Brodie, is only the second by a state supreme court to confront the disclosure of those whose anonymous comments are alleged to be defamatory. The court established a strict, five-step process that courts in Maryland must follow before requiring disclosure of someone's identity:
When a trial court is confronted with a defamation action in which anonymous speakers or pseudonyms are involved, it should, (1) require the plaintiff to undertake efforts to notify the anonymous posters that they are the subject of a subpoena or application for an order of disclosure, including posting a message of notification of the identity discovery request on the message board; (2) withhold action to afford the anonymous posters a reasonable opportunity to file and serve opposition to the application; (3) require the plaintiff to identify and set forth the exact statements purportedly made by each anonymous poster, alleged to constitute actionable speech; (4) determine whether the complaint has set forth a prima facie defamation per se or per quod action against the anonymous posters; and (5), if all else is satisfied, balance the anonymous poster’s First Amendment right of free speech against the strength of the prima facie case of defamation presented by the plaintiff and the necessity for disclosure of the anonymous defendant’s identity, prior to ordering disclosure.
The case involved anonymous comments critical of the cleanliness of a Dunkin' Donuts owned by Maryland developer Zebulon Brodie. Brodie sued the online newspaper that hosted the comments and three John Doe defendants. The trial judge dismissed the newspaper from the lawsuit under the Communications Decency Act, but nevertheless ordered the newspaper to provide identifying information about the three John Doe defendants and two others not named in the complaint.

It is interesting to note that the Court of Appeals could have disposed of this case without addressing this important issue. In reviewing the lower-court proceedings, it found that the three John Does identified in the complaint had nothing to do with the allegedly defamatory comments concerning cleanliness of the Dunkin' Donuts. The two who did make those comments were never named in the complaint. In light of this, Brodie had not established a valid cause of action for defamation against any defendant and the judge had no grounds to order the disclosures. But the Court of Appeals went on to decide the broader issue anyway, explaining, "We did not take this issue just to sort out the record but to give guidance to trial courts addressing similar matters."

You can read more about this case from The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post.

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