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

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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 the 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.

Outzen has a lot more to say on this topic here.