Internet Law

Court Rules Anonymous Blogger Sued for Defamation May Be Unmasked

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Corrected: A Tennessee judge has ruled that a husband and wife who operate a real estate business and a halfway house for recovering drug abusers may unmask an anonymous blogger who criticized them at his or her Stop Swartz blog.

The blogger accused the couple, Donald and Terry Keller Swartz of Old Hickory, of committing arson and being drug addicts themselves, Ars Technica reports. The blogger also asked readers to report any time they spotted one of the Swartzes.

The Swartzes sued on the grounds of defamation and invasion of privacy. They subpoenaed Google to reveal the blogger, and the blogger filed a motion to quash.

Judge Thomas Brothers ruled against the blogger.

“Internet anonymous speech is not entitled to absolute protection,” Brothers wrote in his Oct. 8 opinion (PDF posted by the Citizen Media Law Project). “The free speech of the defendant must therefore be balanced with the reputation and privacy interests of the plaintiffs.”

Brothers applied a five-step standard established in a 2001 New Jersey appellate case, Dendrite International v. Doe. It requires a reasonable attempt to notify the blogger, a reasonable time to respond, identification of allegedly defamatory statements, a substantial showing of proof, and a balancing of First Amendment interests.

Brothers said his decision may be immediately reviewed.

Corrected on Oct. 29 to remove incorrect statement that Stop Swartz accused the Swartzes of failing to report property sales to evade taxes.

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