Despite the fact that I almost always post things online using my real name, and despite the fact that attorneys can get themselves into trouble when commenting anonymously, I’m a big believer in the value of online anonymity.
Why would I feel this way? After all, anonymity can provide a shield to all sorts of vile nonsense, hyperbole, and worse. And the internet exacerbates this problem by making anonymous commenting much easier, farther in reach and (seemingly) free of accountability.
But then there’s this: some voices just aren’t going to be heard unless they can speak anonymously. That’s one of the main reasons the U.S. Supreme Court has long recognized a first amendment right to speak anonymously. As an adherent of the “more speech” solution to offensive comments, that’s good enough for me. 1
So I was please to see that a New York court denied a motion to “unmask” the identity of an anonymous commenter (court order here), in this case the author of a piece on Seeking Alpha that was viciously critical of a company called NanoViricides.
New York follows the coalescing approach to such unmasking motions, requiring that the plaintiff show a prima facie case for defamation in order to prevail. In this case, despite some very inflammatory statements, 2 the court found that there was no cause of action for defamation.
Besides offering a good discussion of the difference between statements of opinion and fact, the court’s order also offers this closing nugget:
Courts should protect against the use of subpoenas by corporations and plaintiffs with business interests to enlist the help of ISPs via court order to silence their online critics, which threatens to stifle the free exchange of ideas.
I would caution would-be anonymous commenters that this statement should not be read as a license to defame or otherwise abuse review forums. But it supports the proposition that anonymous speech is important, and that such speech should only be unmasked where the situation clearly calls for it.
- But there’s more – there is also the fact that readers are more than capable of making credibility judgments based on whether the writer has put their name and reputation behind their statements. ↩
- Read the order or the post itself for the full list. Somewhat surprisingly, the company apparently did not complain about the post’s equating of the company’s name with a terrible Keanu Reeve movie. ↩