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Sticks and stones may break my bones

Last week we reported about a high-profile case Public Citizen is arguing. Jermaine Hall, editor of Vibe magazine,  and his wife are attempting to force the online message board Lipstick Alley to reveal the identity of an anonymous poster who, under the screen name BETonBlack, posted comments that the Halls found offensive.

The reality is, as blogger Charing Ball aptly pointed out the Halls:

. . . might be making mountains out of a molehill because prior to lawsuit, most users probably never heard of BETonBlack or his or her comments.  Now it’s a guarantee that folks will be actively seeking them out.

Ball writes of her own experiences being a blogger,

As a writer, particularly one who publishes their work online, you will learn to develop a thicker skin over time to deal with attacks from those whose sole purpose is to provoke an emotional-based response. As infuriating it is and can be at times, consider the trolls as a not-so-pleasant consequence that comes with the privilege of participating in the last bastion of free speech also known as the Internet.

Words can hurt. This we do not deny. Every day people say things that we don’t agree with but when it comes to revealing the identity of those that say them online, not liking what someone says is not enough to force a company to unmask the identity of a commenter. In the brief filed on the case last week by Public Citizen attorney Paul Levy, Public Citizen says that the Halls have yet to even allege that the comments were made with actual malice, a higher standard of proof which must be used when public figures like Jermaine Hall are involved.  Imagine a world where every time someone said something negative in an online forum about the editor of the New York Times the New York Times Company went to court. If you think the U.S. judicial system is slow now . . . hard to imagine, right?

What is even harder to imagine is a world where anonymous online speech is not protected. This is the world that Paul Levy and Public Citizen have been fighting to protect for years. Charing Ball writes,

These sorts of lawsuits could be troubling for some people because it could result in a much harder time using the Internet if real names and/or addresses are revealed. Corporate whistleblowers, human rights workers and organizers, and victims of domestic violence all benefit from the anonymity of the Internet.

Public Citizen is a leader in Internet freedom of speech. Our work has helped courts define standards that protect your first amendment rights online. Please visit our website for more information on this issue.