On April 5, 2013, a New Jersey State Appellate Court issued a ruling creating an exception to the state’s standard for allowing plaintiffs and easier way of identifying anonymous online speakers.
In the lawsuit, a hospital filed an action against several anonymous defendants alleging that the defendants had defamed the hospital and tortiously interfered with its business relationships. The complaint alleged that the defendants had hacked into the hospital’s secure mail system and sent e-mails to all the employees of the hospital with links to YouTube videos comparing certain hospital employees to Adolf Hitler and other dictators. The hospital also alleged that the defendants sent e-mails to all hospital employees accusing other individuals at the hospital of sexual misconduct and other wrongdoings.
After filing the complaint, the hospital issued a subpoena to an Internet Service Provider to identifying anonymous online defendants.
Under normal circumstances, New Jersey state courts apply a four factor First Amendment “balancing test” when deciding whether the circumstances are appropriate to allow the identity of an online speaker to be revealed. Under this First Amendment test, New Jersey state courts consider the following four factors:
1) Whether the Defendant is a person or entity who could be sued;
2) Whether the Plaintiff made a good-faith effort to serve the defendant with process;
3) Whether the lawsuit could withstand a motion to dismiss; and
4) Whether there is a reasonable likelihood that discovery would uncover information that would allow service of process.
In this case however, the New Jersey Appellate Court decided to modify this standard. The Court ruled that the traditional stringent First Amendment test would still apply in situations where individuals post statements to public internet message boards. However, the Court ruled that in circumstances like this case, where what happened to the hospital “was no different than if [the defendants] broke into the hospital and spray painted their messages on the hospital’s walls,” an easier standard to reveal an anonymous speaker would apply.
The court ruled that it is enough for a plaintiff simply to demonstrate “(1) the speakers’ unlawful or impermissible mode of communication, and (2) that the allegedly defamatory statements would survive a motion to dismiss.”
In today’s world, where incidents of online defamation and hacking are becoming more and more prevalent every day, the New Jersey Appellate Court’s ruling creates a welcome and sensible exception to the high standards that New Jersey typically requires to uncover the identity of anonymous online speakers. The ruling will make it much easier to uncover the identities of individuals who hack or illegally gain access into another’s personal or business accounts to broadcast illegal or defamatory information.
As the above case illustrates, the legal system is slowly but surely catching up to the modern realities of the internet by making it easier to uncover the identity and location of anonymous online speakers. If you or your company is being defamed online by an anonymous speaker, the internet attorneys at Meyers Roman Friedberg & Lewis, LPA can assist you in identifying the anonymous speaker, recovering monetary damages, and removing the speech from the internet. Contact Attorney Aaron Minc at (216) 831-0042 or Aminc@Meyersroman.com today to discuss your specific matter further.