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Friday, June 19, 2015

Anonymous Poster's Identity Must be Released in Defamation Case

Last week, the Illinois Supreme Court decided a case involving anonymous internet posters. The case involved certain online comments to a newspaper article about Bill Hadley, a candidate for county board office. Hadley v. Subscriber Doe a/k/a Fuboy, 2015 IL 118000. Specifically, an anonymous poster called "Fuboy" had posted the following comment (among others) to the online article:
Hadley is a Sandusky waiting to be exposed. Check out the view he has of Empire [a local grade school] from his front door. 
Hadley filed a defamation lawsuit against the newspaper. As part of the litigation, the newspaper provided Hadley with the IP address acquired from Comcast from which  "Fuboy's" comments originated. Hadley then sought a court order to require Comcast to release the identity of the subscriber of the IP address. Counsel for the subscriber filed a motion to quash the subpoena, and while the motion was pending, Hadley filed an amended complaint naming "Subscriber Doe a/k/a/ Fuboy" as a defendant to the defamation action. Both the circuit court and appellate court ordered Comcast to turn over the subscriber's identity, and the subscriber appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.

The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the lower courts' decisions that the subscriber identity should be released to Hadley. Rule 224 provides that a plaintiff is entitled to ascertain the identity of the individual who may be responsible for damages against the plaintiff. The rule has been applied in defamation cases where the plaintiff can show that discovery of the individual's identity is "necessary" and where the plaintiff has presented sufficient allegations of a defamation claim to overcome a motion to dismiss. 

To state a cause of action for defamation, a plaintiff must show facts showing that the defendant made a false statement about the plaintiff, the defendant made an unprivileged publication of that statement to a third party, and the publication caused damages. Here, the Supreme Court held that Fuboy's statements impute the commission of a crime to Hadley by referring to the Sandusky sexual abuse scandal, which at the time the comment was posted, had dominated the news for weeks. That statement, the Court noted, could reasonably be interpreted to mean that "Hadley was a pedophile or had engaged in sexual acts with children." 

The Court rejected Fuboy's argument that the comment could be susceptible to an innocent interpretation. The Court also rejected Fuboy's argument that the statement was not a factual assertion, but simply opinion. First, the comment had a precise and readily understood meaning, could be readily verified, and conveyed some personal familiarity from Fuboy that suggested it had factual content. 

As a result, the Court agreed that Comcast must turn over its subscriber's identity to Hadley, in furtherance of his defamation case.

Lesson?  Nothing is ever truly anonymous on the Internet.

Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf

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