Back in 2009, an Internet defamation fracas began in Illinois. A truly 21st century legal standoff, the cyber libel lawsuit of Stone v. Hipcheck16 involved a local election, one politically-minded parent and the arguably bawdy smack-talk of at least one teen-aged blogger.
The case was watched by many for its Internet privacy implications. And sure enough, the decision of the Illinois appeal’s court has further cemented the state’s legal standing when it comes to online anonymous speech.
How The Internet Defamation Lawsuit Began: Internet Smack Talk
It was 2009, and thanks to the Buffalo Grove Village local elections, things were heating up on the Daily Herald’s message board. Thus was the political climate when two posters, “Uncle W” and “Hipcheck16,” became embroiled in an online debate.
After some online back-and-forth, Hipcheck16 correctly guessed that Uncle W was Jed, son of Buffalo Grove Village candidate, Lisa Stone. After admitting his identity, Uncle W/Jed challenged Hipcheck16 to a face-to-face political debate, to which Hipcheck16 answered:
“Thanks for the invitation to visit you…but I’ll have to decline. Seems like you’re very willing to invite a man you only know from the Internet over to your house – have you done it before, or do they usually invite you to the house?”
Hardy, har, har. A not so clever, albeit typical, Internet message board response – right? Well, Jed’s mom wasn’t able to shake off what she interpreted as an assertion by Hipcheck16 that her son “solicited men for sex on the Internet” and decided to file an Internet defamation lawsuit on her Jed’s behalf.
The Internet Defamation Lawsuit Trial Court Ruling
In an effort to unmask Hipcheck16, Lisa Stone filed for a pre-suit subpoena which asked that Comcast, Hipcheck16’s Internet service provider, reveal Hipcheck16’s true identity. But someone at Comcast was aware of proper protocol, and instead of just handing over the information to the Stones, they alerted Hipcheck16 of the information request along with an explanation of every citizen’s right to fight these types of subpoenas. Hipcheck16 opted to fight the request on First Amendment grounds.
During the first trial court go-round, Cook County Circuit Court judge, Jeffrey Lawrence, ordered that Hipcheck16’s identity be turned over to Stone for purposes of pursuing an Internet defamation lawsuit. That being said, while the judge ostensibly ruled in Stone’s favor, he also stayed the order, thus allowing the appellate court time to consider the important Free Speech issue. In addition, the trial court also ordered Stone to identify, in particularity, Hipcheck16’s defamatory statements.
Appeals Court Ruling
When the case hit the appellate court bench, they first ordered Stone to outline why, exactly, she needed to uncover Hipcheck16’s identity; moreover, the court asked that she provide a cogent argument as to the validity of her legal Internet defamation claim — both requests qualify as fairly normal procedural fair.
To paraphrase, over the course of the appeal’s court proceedings, Stone’s side revealed that the exact claim of defamation is based on the allegation that Hipcheck16 insinuated Jed solicited sex from men on the Internet. Stephen Tyma, Stone’s lawyer, argued that First Amendment rights were important, but such protection should not be given in instances where “sexual insinuations about children” were involved.
For their part, the court put forth a four-part standard for determining whether or not the name of an anonymous individual should be revealed for purposes of proceeding with an Internet defamation lawsuit. These standards being:
(1) Verification; Must be verified (signed by party);
(2) Detail facts that support a defamation cause for action;
(3) Plaintiff can only seek identifying information relevant to the matter at hand; and
(4) (a)Unnamed person must be the liable entity that will be responsible for damages if found guilty
(b)Party requesting identity must prove that they would survive a motion for summary judgment – not just a motion to dismiss.
The Final Verdict: Who Won This Internet Defamation Lawsuit
In the end, Stone rested her son’s case and Hipcheck16 emerged victorious in this Internet defamation lawsuit. What factors led to Hipcheck16’s win?
First and foremost, Hipcheck16 never flat-out said, “Jed solicits men for sex on the Internet.” Instead, s/he asked a question, “…have you done it before, or do they usually invite you to the house?” Intrinsic in the legal definition of defamation is the premise of a “false statement” – the operative word being statement. So Stone’s assertion that Hipcheck16’s interrogative was defamatory fell short on the defamation definition front.
Secondly, defamation law incorporates context. Essentially, when deciding on defamation lawsuits, judges will consider whether or not a reasonable person would actually believe the statement(s) in question. (This idea is a central aspect of the now infamous Hustler Magazine v. Falwell defamation lawsuit.) Upon reviewing the facts of this Internet defamation case, officials decided that the “tenor” of the conversation would lead most people to assume that the two parties involved only knew each other from the Internet and therefore had no real knowledge of each other’s’ lifestyle – another factor hurting the defamation claim.
Thirdly, U.S. legal precedent asserts that if an allegedly defamatory statement can be innocently construed, then it should be. In this case, Hipcheck16 could have argued that when making the statement, s/he was genuinely talking about inviting men over to the house to discuss politics, not sex.
At the end of the day, Stone et al did not have a strong Internet defamation case to begin with; but nonetheless, the lawsuit helped in cementing Illinois legal precedent with regards to anonymous Internet speech standards.