Chicago - The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Media Freedom and Information Access Practicum (MFIA) at Yale Law School filed a friend-of-the-court brief today urging the Illinois Court of Appeals to block the unmasking of an anonymous online critic of a local political candidate.
The critic, commenting on a story on the website of a suburban Chicago newspaper called the Daily Herald, engaged in a heated debate with other commenters. One turned out to be the son of the village trustee candidate in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, who was discussed in the article. The candidate, Lisa Stone, who eventually won her race, asked a state court to order the newspaper to release the critic's name and address without appropriately showing that the statements directed towards her son were defamatory or otherwise illegal. Stone indicated that she may choose to subsequently file a lawsuit once she determines the critic's identity through the pre-complaint procedure.
"Because of the enormous potential for abuse, the First Amendment requires litigants to demonstrate that they have a legitimate case before they can use the courts to unmask anonymous online critics," said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Matt Zimmerman. "Insults are not enough, especially when the conversation takes place in the context of a political campaign."
In November, a lower court granted Stone's pre-lawsuit request for her critic's identity, incorrectly arguing that a narrow disclosure to Stone would adequately protect the speaker's First Amendment rights. The court stayed the disclosure requirement in light of the speaker's appeal. In its amicus brief filed today, EFF and MFIA argue that this low standard for unmasking an anonymous speaker has a chilling effect on all manner of anonymous speech, political or otherwise.
"Lisa Stone is now a person of political power in the community. She does not have a blank check to pry into someone's life just because he said something she didn't like," said Margot Kaminski, Yale Law student and co-founder of MFIA. "We hope the Court of Appeals will recognize the importance that anonymous speech plays in the free and robust political debate generated by newspapers online."
For the full amicus brief:
Senior Staff Attorney
Electronic Frontier Foundation