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Yahoo!, AOL must reveal names of anonymous message posters

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         FLORIDA         Libel         Oct 26, 2000    

Yahoo!, AOL must reveal names of anonymous message posters

  • Message board participants accused of defamation have no right to anonymity, a Florida appellate court ruled.

Internet web portals Yahoo! and America Online must disclose the names of several anonymous message board participants accused of making libelous statements, a Florida state court of appeals ruled on Oct. 16. A corporate CEO attempting to sue eight people for messages they posted on the popular Internet site had subpoenaed the true names of the board participants from the companies.

The ruling challenges online anonymity, a valuable First Amendment right, said Lyrissa Lidsky, who represented the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed an friend-of-the-court brief before the appeals court.

“The guarantee of anonymity coupled with the ability of citizens to become publishers (on the Internet) means that a lot more ordinary people can now participate in public discussion and debate,” she said. “And not only participate, but make meaningful contributions to public discussion and debate.”

Erik Hvide, the former CEO of Hvide Marine Inc., alleged in his complaint that messages posted on the Yahoo! financial message board defamed him. The messages were authored by persons operating under Internet pseudonyms, or “screen names.” Hvide identified the participants in the complaint as “John Does 1-8.”

Hvide served subpoenas to Yahoo! and AOL to discover the identities of persons who posted messages. A Miami trial court denied the defendants’ motion to quash the subpoena, but stayed the ruling pending the appeal.

The ACLU argued that Hvide should have to prove the statements were defamatory before the names should be revealed. The ACLU also suggested the court may lack jurisdiction over the unknown defendants because they might not live in Florida.

Lidsky also advocated that the plaintiffs need to prove “some indicia that this is a valid defamation suit before you would uncover the identities, some minimal indicia that it’s a viable action rather than an action designed solely to silence your critics.”

Then on Oct. 16, the appellate court dissolved the lower court’s stay halting subpoenas for the records. The panel of Florida’s Third District Court of Appeals denied certiorari to the case after hearing oral arguments on its merits.

Lidsky said the defendants will likely be unable to appeal the matter to the Florida Supreme Court because that court does not have certiorari power.

The case is one of many online anonymity cases across the country, Lidsky said. When she began looking at the issue a couple years ago there were only a handful of cases, but now there are more than one hundred.

“It’s becoming a common tactic used by corporations and their CEOs to sue for defamation anytime they come in for harsh criticism on the financial message boards,” she said. “Some of them are valid defamation actions, no doubt about it, but a lot of them appear to be designed solely for the purpose of intimidating their critics into silence and that’s what makes them so dangerous.”

(Hvide v. John Does 1-8, Media Counsel: Lyrissa Lidsky) DB

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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