Maryland Developer Should Not Receive Identities of Anonymous Internet Speakers, Public Citizen Argues

July 28, 2008

Maryland Developer Should Not Receive Identities of Anonymous Internet Speakers, Public Citizen Argues

Must First Provide Proof That Posts on Internet Forum Run By Newspaper Chain Caused Him Harm

 

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A real estate developer should not be allowed to obtain the names of people who criticized him anonymously on a community Internet forum because he has provided no factual proof that the speakers made false statements about him, Public Citizen told the Maryland Court of Special Appeals in a brief filed today.

“The Internet has the potential to be an equalizing force within our democracy, giving ordinary citizens the opportunity to communicate issues to the public,” said Paul Alan Levy, an attorney with Public Citizen, which filed the brief on behalf of Independent Newspapers. “Whatever the reason for speaking anonymously, a rule that makes it too easy to remove the cloak of anonymity will deprive the public of valuable ideas.”

Bruce W. Sanford and Mark I. Bailen of Baker Hostetler’s Washington, D.C., office represented Independent Newspapers in the trial court and are co-counsel on appeal.

The 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.

The trial court dismissed the complaint against Independent Newspapers on the ground that it is immune from liability for comments posted on its Web site by other users.

In 2006, Brodie asked a court to order Independent Newspapers to identify the names of the forum’s users. Independent Newspapers opposed that discovery, arguing that the court should require proof that the users’ comments were false and defamatory, but the court ordered the discovery in 2007. Independent Newspapers appealed the decision on March 17, 2008.

 

Levy argued that Brodie should not be able to obtain the names of the forum’s users because their posts set forth only opinions, not defamatory facts. Even if the opinions of the posters are actionable, Brodie has failed to present any evidence that the stated facts are false or have caused him any harm, Levy said.

 

Courts that have dealt with the question of anonymous Internet speech generally invoke the idea that a compelling interest must exist in order to infringe upon a person’s right to remain anonymous, Levy said.

“The question of what standard should be applied to a case that seeks to identify anonymous Internet speakers is becoming more common in the courts,” Levy said. “Courts have been resolving this question by seeking a balance between the right of anonymous speech and the potential risk to a person who claims to have suffered harm from this speech. In this case, we are asking Maryland to join the national consensus approach to the question.”

To read the brief, go to https://www.citizen.org/sites/default/files/brodieappellatebrief2.pdf.