Are Online Comments No Longer Anonymous?

Post by Randall Ryder

In a recent case, the Third Circuit of Appeals ruled that an Illinois newspaper must reveal the identity of an anonymous commentator.  Going forward, will this change the way newspapers and individuals approach online comments?

The case involved an Illinois couple who tried to convert their home to a bed and breakfast. They were unsuccessful because of city ordinances, and the story was reported by a local newspaper. In response, one commenter wrote that despite failing, the couple had tried to bribe the planning commission.

In response, the couple sued the commenter for libel, and sought the ID of the commenter to name them as a party to the suit. The Third Circuit reasoned that statements of opinion are protected as free speech, but not assertions of fact. In a 2-1 holding, the Court found the commenter’s statement was not "mere opinion," and therefore was not protected as free speech.

The dissenting judge disagreed on a number of grounds. The judge reasoned that anonymity must be well-protected. In addition, if the couple did not win their lawsuit, the commenter would still suffer harm because their identity was revealed. The judge also agreed with the commenter’s lawyer, and felt that no reasonable person would believe that comments in an internet forum were factual, rather than opinion. 

Responding to the decision, the newspapers editor noted that the importance of this case was not just the matter at hand, but about broader concepts of privacy and free speech. Specifically, the editor said "In the interest of our readers and online visitors, we attempt to maintain the privacy of those who make comments. Until a court tells us otherwise, we feel obligated to uphold that trust."

What does this mean moving forward? For one, anyone writing or posting anything online should always think before they type. For some reason, people feel less inhibited when writing online, which can be dangerous. Unlike merely speaking something, when you write something online, it stays online for a long time (perhaps forever). with that in mind, it is always important to think before you write. From a pure practical standpoint, people sometimes write based on emotions, and later regret what they typed. 

The newspaper in this case still made a strong statement about privacy. While the paper was ordered to turn over the identity in this case, that does not mean anonymity no longer exists. In this case, the newspaper did not turn it over until a court ordered it, and seemed to indicate that was the only way they would reveal commenters identities. 

What do you think? How should this change they way people interact online?

Appellate Court: Times must turn over commenter’s info | The Times



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