Illinois court rules anonymous comment allegations ‘sheer speculation’

A court in the Northern District of Illinois recently concluded that accusations that an internet service provider might have falsified an account in order to leave comments anonymously cannot survive a motion to dismiss.

In Hadley v. GateHouse Media Freeport Holdings, a county board member filed a complaint against the publisher of the Journal-Standard for allegedly defamatory remarks made in the comments on its website. 2012 WL 2866463 (N.D. Ill. 2012).  The plaintiff stated that under an article published by the Journal-Standard, a person using the name “Fuboy” posted the comment: “Hadley is a Sandusky waiting to be exposed. Check out the view he has of Empire from his front door.” Id.  The defendant cited to the Communications Decency Act, reasoning that because it is an internet service provider, it is immune from liability for statements posted on its site that cannot be attributed to it. Id.

The plaintiff countered in his opposition, however, that it is possible that “Fuboy” was actually a creation of the defendant used as a proxy to convey the information anonymously.  Id.  The court rejected this argument, saying that, not only was this allegation not included in the complaint, but claiming this was “sheer speculation,” and the accusation was not enough to survive a motion to dismiss. Id.  For those reasons, the court dismissed the complaint against the Journal-Standard.

The decision is fairly short and to the point, leaving no room for speculation about why the plaintiff might have made this allegation in its opposition to the motion to dimiss.  But Hadley also failed to allege that the newspaper created the comments in his complaint, leading one to believe that the accusation was not grounded in any proof.  It seems that the plaintiff’s counsel were engaged in some creative lawyering in an attempt to work around 47 U.S.C. § 230.  Although no doubt publishers may have created screen names in an attempt to leave anonymous comments in the past, it is few and far between.  Additionally, such an accusation would need to be properly pleaded in the complaint.

This decision shows once again that Section 230 is a powerful tool for Internet service providers.

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