Many people use social media as a platform to voice their opinions on a variety of issues and topics. Some people may use Facebook or Twitter to protest against the construction of a building in their town, while others may use these platforms to comment about a celebrity. The reality is that many of these users have fictitious names and type comments that they would never say if their true identities were revealed or were face-to-face with the other person. In many instances there is no accountability for comments posted on any social media site. A recent New Jersey court ruling may change the anonymity of social media posting.
A New Jersey Appeals Court has ruled that an anonymous online commentator must reveal his or her identity to members of a church known for its proselytizing who claim the commentator defamed them. The Appellate Court ruled that the comments made by a person known only as Carlos Doe on a website operated by the Intellectual Freedom Foundation are not protected by the First Amendment.
In the matter at hand, the plaintiffs Mazzuckis and her husband Mauro and Pereira and his wife Quintero are all members of the World Mission Society Church. The plaintiffs’ lawsuit, which includes Freedom Foundation as a defendant, alleges that Doe defamed them by posting that Mazzuckis and Pereira were engaged in an extramarital affair and that Mazzuckis used sexual innuendo to recruit new members to the church.
The standard to determine if statement(s) made are defamatory differs depending on if the individual, whom the statements are about, is a public figure or a private figure. The law of defamation embodies the important public policy that individuals should generally be free to enjoy their reputations unimpaired by false and defamatory attacks. The law, however, is not without its limits. Defamation-law principles must achieve the proper balance between protecting reputation and protecting free speech. In that regard, speech on ‘matters of public concern’ is at the heart of the First Amendment’s protection.
A statement is defamatory when it is false and ‘injurious to the reputation of another’ or exposes another person to ‘hatred, contempt or ridicule’ or subjects another person to ‘a loss of the good will and confidence’ in which he or she is held by others.
Where the plaintiff is a private figure and the speech is about an exclusively private concern, a traditional negligence standard of fault is applicable, which is defined as communicating the false statement while acting negligently in failing to ascertain the truth or falsity of the statement before communicating it.
The Plaintiffs argued that they are entitled to learn Doe’s identity after satisfying the four-part test established by the Appellate Division in its 2001 ruling in Dendrite International v. Doe No. 3. In this case the appeals court stated that a plaintiff (1) must identify the fictitious defendant with some degree of specificity to determine if the defendant is a real person, (2) demonstrate a good-faith effort to comply with service of process, (3) present sufficient evidence to show that the lawsuit can survive a motion to dismiss and (4) provide a request for discovery and a limited list of persons on whom discovery demands might be served. If the judge determines that a plaintiff has satisfied Dendrite, the judge must then balance the defendant’s First Amendment right of anonymous speech against the necessity of the plaintiff’s need to know the defendant’s identity.
The Appeals Court quoted its unpublished 2001 ruling in Immunomedics v. Doe stating that individuals choosing to harm another through speech on the Internet cannot hope to shield their identity and avoid punishment through invocation of the First Amendment.
The court stated that Doe’s anonymous posts were not opinions, but rather accusations, which to a reasonable person of ordinary negligence, accuse Mazzuckis and Pereira of an adulterous relationship. The court stated that accusing individuals of adultery in a public forum is not the kind of robust, publicly-spirited debate entitled to the protections of the First Amendment.
This case may be one of many to hold accountable individuals who hide behind their keyboards posting whatever they seem fit. Social media should be used for, among other things, providing a review of a restaurant and not to falsely accuse another of adulterous acts. The attorneys at Gale & Laughlin are here to help protect you and assist you in stopping harmful anonymous posts. Contact us with any questions you may have.