February 22, 2012

Indiana Appellate Court: Commenter on Newspaper Website May Have First Amendment Right to Anonymity

Case Was Closely Watched by Media Companies

WASHINGTON, D.C. - People who post comments on newspapers' websites may have the First Amendment right to remain anonymous, an Indiana appellate court ruled today.

As a result, the plaintiff who sued for defamation must produce evidence that a particular anonymous commenter's post on The Indianapolis Star's website was false, and the lower court must weigh whether the commenter's identity should be revealed, the appellate court said.

Public Citizen argued in December 2011 in support of The Indianapolis Star, contending that to unmask the commenter, the court must notify the commenter, prove that the comment was false and balance the commenter's First Amendment right of anonymous free speech against the merits of a defamation claim. Public Citizen acted as amicus in the case.

"With this decision, Indiana joins the growing consensus in state and federal courts around the country that the Dendrite balancing test is the best way to reconcile the free speech rights of anonymous Internet speakers against the interest of plaintiffs who really have been wronged by online speech in pursuing genuine legal claims," said Paul Alan Levy, the Public Citizen attorney who argued the case. "Requiring proof and a showing of genuine need for the speaker's identity can help prevent powerful interests from discouraging criticism by the threat of baseless litigation."

The case began after a March 2010 story was published in The Indianapolis Star about whether Junior Achievement, a local charity organization, misappropriated grant money. An anonymous person - using the pseudonym "DownWithTheColts" - posted a comment on the newspaper website alleging that the organization's missing money could be found in the former president's bank account.

One of the organization's former presidents, Jeffrey Miller, filed a suit for defamation, among other claims, against Junior Achievement, the foundation whose grant was in question and their respective presidents, and the anonymous commenter. A lower court ordered the newspaper to reveal the identity of the commenter.

In December 2011, Public Citizen, along with two separate groups of media organizations and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, submitted amicus briefs urging the appellate court to consider the First Amendment right to speak anonymously before unmasking the commenter.

To read the amicus brief and the appellate court ruling, visit http://www.citizen.org/litigation/forms/cases/getlinkforcase.cfm?cID=675.

Public Citizen is a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. For more information, please visit www.citizen.org.

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