Appeals Court Affirms Right of Critics to Remain Anonymous on the Internet

Feb. 27, 2009 

Appeals Court Affirms Right of Critics to Remain Anonymous on the Internet

Public Citizen Argued that Plaintiff Never Proved That ‘John Does’ Made False Statements  

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A real estate developer should not be allowed to unmask people who criticized him anonymously on an Internet forum because his original defamation complaint did not name the “John Does” as defendants and, now, the statute of limitations has expired, a Maryland appellate court ruled today.

Additionally, the court ruled that in future cases, plaintiffs must make a showing that the speakers made false statements about them before they can proceed.

The ruling in Independent Newspapers Inc. v. Brodie is a major victory for free speech on the Internet, said Public Citizen attorney Paul Alan Levy, who handled the case on behalf of three anonymous “John Doe” defendants. Bruce W. Sanford and Mark I. Bailen of Baker Hostetler’s Washington, D.C., office represented Independent Newspapers in the trial court and served as co-counsel on appeal.

“The court’s ruling affirms the very important constitutional right of citizens to participate in debate about important community issues and to do so anonymously, if they so choose,” Levy said. “Taking away a person’s right to remain anonymous on the Internet – without good justification – would have a chilling effect on the public exchange of valuable ideas.”

Developer Zebulon Brodie filed a lawsuit on May 26, 2006, alleging that three people on an online community forum and Independent Newspapers, the forum operator, had conspired to defame him. The newspaper chain publishes community newspapers in Arizona, Delaware, Maryland and Florida. It also operates NewsZap.com, a Web site that features pages for the communities in the four states, where people can register for and participate in a public issues forum.

The forum’s users had discussed and criticized Brodie’s sale to a developer of a historic landmark home in Church Hill, Md., which was burned to the ground shortly after the sale. They also complained about the unsanitary conditions at a Dunkin’ Donuts that Brodie owns in Centreville, Md.

After a trial court dismissed the complaint against Independent Newspapers on the grounds that it is immune from liability for comments posted on its Web site by other users, Brodie asked a court to order Independent Newspapers to identify the names of the forum’s users.

In issuing its ruling, the appellate court adopted the standard set in the 2001 Dendrite v. Doe case in New Jersey. In Dendrite, the court ruled that a plaintiff must show “wrongful conduct” on the part of the defendant, while balancing the disclosure rights of the plaintiff with the defendants’ right to remain anonymous.

READ the suit.

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