Judge rules in online defamation case, anonymous does not stay anomymous forever

A Philadelphia judge has ordered the owners of Philly.com to disclose the identity of a person who posted a comment online calling the plaintiff a pedophile.

The ruling came in a defamation suit filed by John J. Dougherty, who sued the anonymous poster and had subpoenaed Philadelphia Media Network, Philly.com’s parent company, to supply the person’s identity.

The judge said, “I think it does bring accountability back to people who post things online and I hope it disposes of the notion that just because you’re anonymous, you can say defamatory things about other people and not be held accountable for it.”

Cyber libel cases are relatively new. Will Dougherty win his case once he knows who wrote the comment?

According to one attorney I consulted, plaintiffs in most defamation cases must prove harm. However, if the statement at issue is an accusation of criminality, professional disparagement or moral turpitude, then the damage is inherent, relieving the plaintiff of the proof burden.

Times Online columnist Ron Gower wrote in his column on the Philadelphia ruling (‘Anonymous postings:They might come back to bite you‘) that lawsuits over anonymous Internet postings are becoming more common. He cited two cases:

In a Brooklyn Federal Court suit filed last month, Paul Arena and Nathaniel Bradley sought to unmask some 30 ‘John Doe’ defendants who made ‘vulgar’ comments about them after they resigned from their executive positions.

In 2012, a Texas couple who filed a defamation lawsuit against anonymous posters on the Internet forum Topix.com won a $13.8 million judgment from a jury.

Those in political arena have started to see coordinated efforts, sometimes creating a series of fake identities, to post attacks on opponents. The Philadelphia ruling might push for some politicians to ferret out their attackers.

On this blog, we have established rules to moderate comments to avoid subpoenas like the ones mentioned above. We do allow anonymous comments, but we encourage people to use their real names. We haven’t hesitated to delete one if anyone emails or calls to object to a specific comment.

A growing number of publishers are shutting down their comment sections on their websites. The Atlantic Media-owned business site Quartz hasn’t had comments since its launch in 2012. Vox, a news site, launched last week without a comment section, as did Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish last year. Popular Science deleted its comment section in September. Recently the Chicago Sun-Times announced that it was temporarily suspending its comment system.

Richardo Bilton wrote for DigiDay (“Why some publishers are killing their comment sections“):

The promise of the Internet, we are often told, is the opportunity to have a two-way dialogue. Anyone visiting a publisher’s comment section, however, might wonder whether that’s a promise or a threat.

Internet comments have long been a conundrum. Like communism, they’re great on paper but not so much in practice. Done right, publishing comments can drive discussion and increase reader engagement. But more often than not, publishers have seen their comment sections devolve into a free-for-all in which decorum and even social norms are tossed aside in the name of some grievance, real or perceived.

The Independent News will be following these issues closely.