Anonymity, the Courts and Protection
The Maryland Court of Appeals has overturned a previous ruling that would have required a website that was being charged with defamation due to comments from anonymous ‘users’ to turn over their identities immediately.
All of this stems from a case where a Dunkin Donuts franchise received some non-complimentary anonymous comments about its bathroom cleanliness on the online forum NewsZap.com run by Independent Newspapers. The store is in Centreville, MD and having never been there I, Frank Reed, have no comment as to the cleanliness of their facilities. I will say though that I have encountered a few Dunkin’ Donut restrooms that could be introduced to some disinfectant and air freshener for sure but I digress.
The franchise owner claims that the anonymous posters on this forum defamed his store. This is where this ruling gets pretty unclear as to whether anonymity is actually being protected. Apparently the plaintiff misidentified the actual posts in his complaint. In other words, this guy screwed up. The appeals court is acting on a technicality of sorts because this franchise owner was sloppy. If he had identified the posts correctly (how in the world did that not happen in the first place?) would this have been overturned?
The court says that it is trying to balance the right of anonymous speech on the Internet with the right for a target of any defamatory remarks to seek protection from those kind of remarks.
A CNET blurb on this subject continues
In a defamation case involving anonymous speakers, the ruling said, courts should first require the plaintiff to try to notify the anonymous posters that they are the subject of a subpoena. That notification could come in the form of a message posted to the online forum in question, and the posters must be given sufficient time to respond.
The plaintiff must then hand over the exact statements in question, so the court can decide whether the comments are obviously defamatory. Finally, the ruling says, the court must weigh the anonymous poster’s right to free speech against the strength of the defamation case and the necessity of disclosing the poster’s identity.
That’s interesting. First, if you have any stones whatsoever don’t post anonymously. It’s just a cowardly act and any thinking Internet user would hopefully discount any type of remark that comes from someone who can’t use their name to take credit for the comments. Second, with a little due diligence this case may have looked a lot different because remember the crux of the ruling was about the misidentification of these anonymous posts. Lastly, I wonder how many people even saw these comments? I know for sure that one of the first things I do when I research which Dunkin’ Donuts I will visit I HAVE to read someone’s opinion. C’mon, I just need a coffee and couple of donuts then I’m gone.
Expect this kind of story to be more frequent as the economy continues to suffer because the courts may be the new way for people to generate income. Boy oh boy I can’t wait!