US court tackles online anonymity

Ruling could open up anonymous Internet posters to slander charges.
  • Brad Reed (Network World)
  • 10 December, 2008 09:54

Be careful the next time you engage in an Internet flame war: it could land you in court.

The Maryland Court of Appeals is taking up a case this week that could have major implications for Internet users' ability to anonymously post their opinions on the Web. The case revolves around Zebulon Brodie, a Maryland businessman who is alleging that he has been defamed by anonymous Internet users who posted messages on a Web site owned by Independent Newspapers, a community newspaper company that owns local papers in Arizona, Delaware, Florida and Maryland.

Specifically, Brodie wants Independent Newspapers to disclose the names of three anonymous users whom he alleges defamed him by calling him a polluter.

According to a report in the Maryland Daily Record, an attorney representing Independent Newspapers argued in court Monday that the First Amendment grants citizens the right to make anonymous controversial comments and that compelling hosts to disclose the identities of anonymous posters would have "a chilling effect" on free speech.

Brodie's attorney countered that a person cannot defame another person and expect First Amendment protection, as the First Amendment "can't be so far reaching... as to prevent redress by a plaintiff who has been defamed." Court of Appeals Judge Joseph Murphy expressed similar sentiments, the Daily Record reported, by saying that if posters wished to remain anonymous then they shouldn't defame anyone.

The court gave no indication of when it expected to have the case resolved, the Daily Record said.