Go ahead. I’ll never know who you are. If you anonymously post something online – a blog comment, forum post, business review – the law protects your identity, at least to an extent. The person or business that is the target of a negative comment or review might want to sue, but in order to do so, they need to know the identity of the online poster. In many cases, their lawsuit ends before it begins, because the identity of the anonymous poster is protected under the law.
Now, if you defame me, and I can prove it, then I might be able to find out who you are. It’s a battle between a poster’s right to speak anonymously and the target’s right to be free from defamation. Courts generally support the idea that more speech is in the best interest of us all, and they usually hesitate to do anything that would “chill” free speech.
An Illinois appeals court recently made a decision on this issue. According to an article in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin that I read, the court felt that liberally revealing the identities of online posters would create unnecessary litigation and cause people to post less. I can’t disagree with that. Online discussions would change greatly, and not for the better, if you had to put your name on everything you said.
This recent Illinois case began after someone anonymously posted on the Daily Herald’s website, back in 2009. The comments were directed toward a former village trustee in Buffalo Grove and her son. The comment implied that the trustee’s son solicited sex from men online.
The appellate court said that in order to have the name of a poster revealed, the plaintiff would first have to show that the comment was defamatory. It’s like taking on two cases. You have to show that you have a solid case before a judge will say you can find out who said it. If you can prove it sufficiently, the judge might order that the poster’s identity be revealed (by the internet service provider, for example), and then you can sue them.
Just calling someone names is not defamation. The comments in the Daily Herald case were vague, the judge said, and contained no factual content. In other words, people wouldn’t read the comment and have good reason to believe it was true. The poster didn’t even know the trustee’s son. The court said it wasn’t defamatory, and that Comcast would not be forced to reveal the poster’s identity.
There are people out there who hide behind online anonymity with the intent of hurting other people. Others simply want to make a point without giving their name. Either way, there can be consequences. It can hurt a reputation, or cause a business to lose customers. If you can prove defamation, you may be able to do something about it, but that’s not an easy road. It’s the price we pay for the right to speak freely.
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