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Student Blogger Case Shows That Online Anonymity Isn’t Guaranteed

November 02, 2009 07:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
The anonymity of bloggers and online commentators has for the most part been protected under 1996 legislation, but a case involving a college student that criticized his dean illustrates the limits of anonymous free speech on the Internet.

Butler Student Faces School Discipline for Blog

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Butler University has dropped its libel lawsuit against a student that criticized university administration in an anonymous blog, but not before it was able to obtain the identity of the student. It will continue to pursue its own disciplinary proceedings against the student, junior Jess Zimmerman.

Dan Altman, Zimmerman’s lawyer, said that the university filed the lawsuit not because it believed that Zimmerman posted libelous information, but because it wanted to silence his criticism. He called the lawsuit an example of a strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP), lawsuits that are designed to intimidate defendants that are critical of the plaintiff.

Many students and Internet free speech advocates have come out against the university’s actions. “The danger, they warn, is that the person making the request has no intention of actually suing for libel, but will retaliate in some other way once they learn the blogger's identity. … [T]here's no reason for a litigant to follow through with a hopeless defamation lawsuit once he/she has obtained critics' names and can devise other ways of getting back at them,” according to MediaPost.

Background: Unmasking online commentators

Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act of 1996 provides Web sites and ISPs immunity for content posted by third-party users. Due to the fact that sites and ISPs are not required to provide personal information on users, Section 230 has generally served to protect the anonymity of Internet posters. But there have been numerous notable cases where a Web site or ISP has been persuaded to give up the identity of their users.

In a high-profile case where two Yale Law School students sued posters on the Web site AutoAdmit for making defamatory comments, the plaintiffs were able to obtain the identity of some of the posters through their ISPs. One poster’s identity was made public. The case ended earlier this month when the litigants reached an undisclosed settlement.

In August, model Liskula Cohen used a libel lawsuit to obtain the identity of a woman, Rosemary Port, who created the blog “Skanks in NYC” to ridicule her. Cohen dropped the lawsuit after learning Port’s identity and said the case was “about forgiveness.”

Port has filed a lawsuit against Google for providing her identity to the court. She claims that the site violated her right to privacy and put her on a “silver platter for the press to attack.”

In an ongoing case, a Tennessee judge appears ready to disclose the identity of a blogger that accused a couple of committing crimes, and encouraged readers to report on the couple’s actions when they were seen around town. The blogger’s identity was obtained by the court through Google.

Reference: CyberSLAPP

CyberSLAPP, a Web site maintained by civil liberties and privacy organizations, chronicles online SLAPP lawsuits. It advocates for “a legal standard for courts to follow in deciding whether to compel the identification of anonymous speakers, requiring notice, an opportunity to be heard, and the right to have claims of wrongdoing both specified and justified on the facts before identities are revealed.”
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