Anonymous Defamation: Website Users Reviewed in Appeals Court

anonymous defamationA court case in Indiana has raises an intriguing First Amendment question as it relates to anonymous defamation. In this case, a potentially libelous comment was left by an anonymous user on the Star website. The comment suggested that Jeffrey Miller, the former head of Junior Achievement of Central Indiana, and several of his colleagues had misappropriated funds into their own bank accounts. This comment was posted by a user with the handle “DownWithTheColts.” Now Miller et al. want to sue, but they have no idea who “DownWithTheColts” is.

Although the Star may be able to find identifying information about this individual via his or her IP address (Internet Protocol Address), the publication refused to provide it, citing anonymous speech rights under the First Amendment.

This case calls into question the ability of laws originally created for offline situations to govern or apply to online situations. For example, the judges made an analogy between a website’s comment forum and a physical bulletin board that may exist in a public location. Whether this is a sound analogy, and whether the same laws can govern both situations, is one of the anonymous defamation issues at hand.

Since this case occurred in Indiana, the court must adhere to the state’s “Shield Law.” The Indiana shield law protects a journalistic publication or entity from revealing the identity of its sources. It applies narrowly to professional journalists and traditional media. If the Shield Law applies in this case, it would mean the court cannot legally require Star to provide information regarding the identity of the anonymous commentator. However, whether this law applies at all is one of the matters under review. Is Star’s website an entity covered by the Shield Law, or does the law only apply to print media? And if Shield does apply, is an anonymous comment considered a source?

To that extent, the fact is that Star did not publish information that was based on the information provided by anonymous commentator, DownWithTheColts. Therefore, the individual was not a source to any journalistic ends. Logically, it follows that the Indiana Shield Law does not apply in this case.

Additionally, Star has the ability to moderate comments that are published on the website, which may mean a comment could be considered as an extension to the original article.

The other primary issue in this case is whether or not the comment posted by DownWithTheColts was defamatory. Since constitutional free speech rights don’t apply in cases of defamation, the judges have to agree that the statement was, in fact, defamatory. It also follows that the statement must be proven to be false, since a factual statement is not defamatory.

Upon further review, the judges concluded that the anonymous comment was defamatory. However, Miller also needs to prove it was false. Without this proof, it’s not possible to move forward with a defamation claim. Further, there needs to be some evidence of malice, in regards to the intent of the individual who posted the comment. Since the individual’s identity is not known, it’s not possible to prove whether the intent was malicious. Since proving malice is not possible in this case, the judges modified the requirements so that this detail would not be required in order for Miller to satisfy the requirements and obtain the commentator’s identity.

This case has been sent back to the trial court in order to determine whether all of the necessary requiremenents have been met under the stipulations of the state and federal constitutions. If so, Miller will be able to proceed in finding DownWithTheColts’ identity and Star may have to furnish the IP address and other details of this individual.

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