Strict standards for protecting anonymous online commenters urged by Reporters Committee

Press Release | May 9, 2013

Protecting the identity of someone posting an anonymous review on Yelp or any other website is crucial to protecting speakers’ First Amendment rights and the public good, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and several news organizations argued in a friend-of-the-court brief filed in the Virginia Court of Appeals.

The Reporters Committee brief in Hadeed v. Yelp calls for a heightened standard of judicial review before anonymous online commenters are identified, and urges the court to revisit a lower court’s order compelling the disclosure of an anonymous criticism of the services of Hadeed Carpet Cleaning posted on the online review site Yelp.

“By offering only a minimal discussion of First Amendment interests at state, the trial court failed to fully acknowledge the extent to which the First Amendment restricts compulsory identification of anonymous speakers on the Internet,” the brief to the Court of Appeals argued. “When faced with questions of compelled disclosure of anonymous online speakers, this Court must adopt a meaningful standard that requires a heightened showing of evidence of a valid claim and notice to the affected parties.

“This standard is essential to protect the interests in anonymous speech, which often serve the public good and contribute to a better understanding of public issues and controversies,” according to the brief, which was joined by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Gannett Co. Inc., and The Washington Post.

“Courts around the country have established certain benchmarks that must be satisfied before compelling the disclosure of an anonymous commenter,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Bruce D. Brown. “First, there ought to be tangible evidence that the comment was false and defamatory and, second, speakers should be notified that an action is pending. To do otherwise would be to inhibit robust debate.”

About the Reporters Committee:

Founded in 1970, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers free legal support to thousands of working journalists and media lawyers each year. It is a leader in the fight against persistent efforts by government officials to impede the release of public information, whether by withholding documents or threatening reporters with jail. In addition to its 24/7 Legal Defense Hotline, the Reporters Committee conducts cutting-edge legal research, publishes handbooks and guides on media law issues, files frequent friend-of-the-court legal briefs and offers challenging fellowships and internships for young lawyers and journalists. For more information, go to www.rcfp.org, or follow us on Twitter @rcfp.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· Brief: Hadeed Carpet Cleaning v. Does, Yelp Inc.