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Court sets standard for online anonymity protections

A Maryland appeals court says that judges and lawyers engaged in defamation suits should consider the First Amendment rights of anonymous Web users.

Web sites involved in defamation suits are not required to immediately hand over the identities of readers who leave anonymous comments, a Maryland court has ruled, laying out guidelines for future suits involving online anonymity.

The Maryland Court of Appeals on Friday overturned (PDF) an earlier ruling that would have forced Independent Newspapers, which runs the online forum, to turn over the names of three unknown Internet posters who posted negative remarks regarding the cleanliness of a Dunkin' Donuts in Centreville, Maryland. The owner of the Dunkin' Donuts, Zebulon J. Brodie, claimed the anonymous posters defamed his store.

The appeals court decided Brodie was not entitled to learn the identities of the posters because in his complaint he misidentified the forum participants responsible for the critical comments.

The court used its ruling to set for trial courts a "standard that should be applied to balance the First Amendment right to anonymous speech on the Internet with the opportunity on the part of the object of that speech to seek judicial redress for alleged defamation."

In a defamation case involving anonymous speakers, the ruling said, courts should first require the plaintiff to try to notify the anonymous posters that they are the subject of a subpoena. That notification could come in the form of a message posted to the online forum in question, and the posters must be given sufficient time to respond.

The plaintiff must then hand over the exact statements in question, so the court can decide whether the comments are obviously defamatory. Finally, the ruling says, the court must weigh the anonymous poster's right to free speech against the strength of the defamation case and the necessity of disclosing the poster's identity.