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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Identity of Anonymous Web Poster Protected by Illinois Court

As people increasingly turn to the internet for their news, online message boards and other forums are becoming a popular way for individuals to weigh in on current events and news stories.  Many users of these online message boards and forums post their comments and opinions using an anonymous user name.  Anyone familiar with these sites can attest to the diversity of opinions and viewpoints expressed by these anonymous posters, which can often be critical of a particular individual or topic and, in some cases, personally offensive.  The law is clear that anonymous speech is constitutionally protected. However, those protections do not extend to defamatory statements, raising the following questions:  (1) when is a particular comment defamatory such that it is not constitutionally protected and (2) can an individual discover the identity of an anonymous poster?

An Illinois appellate court addressed both of these questions recently in Stone v. Paddock Publications, Inc., 2011 IL. App (1st) 093386.  In that case, a village board trustee filed a defamation lawsuit relating to anonymous comments made against the trustee’s son.  An example of one of the anonymous poster’s comments is as follows:  “Seems like you are 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 their house?”  Other challenged comments are set out in the decision.  As part of her lawsuit against the anonymous poster, the trustee filed a petition seeking discovery of the poster’s identity.  The trial court granted the trustee’s petition, but the appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision. 

In reaching its decision, the appellate court created a new test for determining whether a plaintiff can pierce the veil of anonymity in online postings.  That test requires that a plaintiff establish that her complaint states a valid, legal claim for defamation.  If the plaintiff meets this initial test, then the court will order that the identity of an anonymous poster be revealed for use in the defamation lawsuit. 

In applying the test to the facts of this case, the appellate court found that the trustee was not entitled to the information because she could not meet her burden to show that the statements against her son were defamatory.  Specifically, the court determined that no reasonable person would find that the statements by the anonymous poster “stated a fact.”  In addition, the court found that the statements could be subject to an innocent construction.  In ruling that the plaintiff was not entitled to release of the poster’s identity, the appellate court stated as follows:

While the law is clear that there is no right to defame another citizen, we cannot condone the inevitable fishing expeditions that would ensue were the trial court’s order to be upheld. Encouraging those easily offended by online commentary to sue to find the name of their ‘tormenters’ would surely lead to unnecessary litigation and would also have a chilling effect on the many citizens who choose to post anonymously on the countless comment boards for newspapers, magazines, websites and other information portals.  Putting publishers and website hosts in the position of being a ‘cyber-nanny’ is a noxious concept that offends our country’s long history of protecting anonymous speech.

While the appellate court refused to order the disclosure of the anonymous poster’s identity in this case, this decision certainly leaves the door open for another plaintiff under a different set of facts to obtain that information.  Online posters should be aware that their right to anonymous speech is not unlimited.


  1. Transparency can be difficult to argue online. They need to do other methods to properly identify.

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  2. People should learn to be responsible internet users. Freedom of speech is a right that should not be abused. It is all our responsibility to keep the information that we post on the internet reliable, honest, and clean.

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