Legal Issues

by Mike Masnick

Filed Under:
anonymity, defamation, maryland

Yet Another State Court Explores Right To Anonymity In Online Posting

from the you-can't-go-back... dept

We've seen an awful lot of lawsuits over the years concerning the "right to anonymity" for online commenters. While other countries tend to be pretty quick to take away anonymity, rulings in the US have pretty consistently allowed anonymous posting. However, the issue keeps coming up -- with the latest battle taking place in Maryland's Court of Appeals, where a business owner is demanding the identity of two anonymous posters on an online message board, who complained that the owner's Dunkin' Donuts location was "one of the most dirty and unsanitary-looking food-service places I have seen" on the site NewsZap, owned by the company Independent Newspapers.

Recently, in a similar case, a court ruled that a newspaper can keep its comments anonymous under the same rules that allow it to keep any sources anonymous. It doesn't sound like this argument came up in this case, but it might be worth considering.

But, more to the point, this seems like it could also be a SLAPP suit. The complaint was clearly a statement of opinion. And, of course, in bringing this lawsuit, it seems like all Zebulon J. Brodie has really done is draw an awful lot more attention to the fact that people think the Dunkin' Donuts he owns in Centreville, Maryland isn't particularly clean. Maybe he would have been a lot better off just making sure that it was clean. And, if he really felt that the message was unfair, why not just post a message pointing out that it wasn't true (hell, put up a photo) and invite anyone to come in and check it out. Wouldn't that have been a lot easier, cheaper and more effective?

Either way, Brodie chose a different route for whatever reason -- but as Public Citizen's Paul Levy argued in court, the issue with anonymity is that once it's removed, you can't go back. A court should be quite cautious and convinced that defamation has actually happened before removing that important right.

Reader Comments

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  1. identicon
    Twinrova, 10 Dec 2008 @ 4:00am


    Maybe I should start watching what I'm "saying" here?

    Some people are just idiots. I still can't get why so many people get upset over a few words posted on a website.

    More importantly, I can't believe so many people take what they read as the truth.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    MrGutts, 10 Dec 2008 @ 4:05am

    I thought the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on this a year or so ago.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. icon
    PaulT (profile), 10 Dec 2008 @ 5:08am

    I'd be more interested to find out why the hell someone would name their kid Zebulon! No wonder the guy turned out to be an ass if he's had to put up with that his whole life...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Greg, 10 Dec 2008 @ 5:51am


    Agreed. Where in this world is "Zebulon" a common name?
    Bet he went through hell in grade school. Sounds like he should have become a magician or a circus performer instead of a donut shop owner.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Evil Mike, 10 Dec 2008 @ 6:14am

    Re: Hmm.

    "More importantly, I can't believe so many people take what they read as the truth."

    Couldn't agree more! Let's just frickin' teach people to think and take what they read with a grain of salt.

    Also: NaCl (aka Salt)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    The Arbiter, 10 Dec 2008 @ 6:23am

    Honestly, I love hearing stuff like this. It only strengthens my theory of the internet.

    The way it's going, the internet will be primarily a giant, virtual 'meeting room' where we can simply talk to one another. Would this man even think about a lawsuit if someone had come up to him and told him this? Sure, there's certainly less anonymity here, but there's still the principle of the case. The manager wouldn't know this person, but they would have obviously gone to his store. What would your reaction be, if you were the manager? You'd be apologetic and some such, and then immediately clean your store. Not sue a person you could potentially bring back with a cleaner place.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Mr. Cle@n, 10 Dec 2008 @ 6:49am

    Runing a spotless shop

    This is hilarious. All this guy is doing is trying to claim some bloggers are making up that his store is dirty. I agree with Mike, he could have saved a lot of money and just cleaned the place up and proved it (or proved it was never dirty), if that is indeed the problem. Besides, health inspection reports get put into the news paper any way, so call the health department for an inspection to set the public straight if cleanliness isn't the problem.
    Or maybe he has some "disgruntled" doughnut dippers, that he wants to get pay back. Or maybe someone dipped their doughnuts in the wrong place O.-

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Erv Server, 10 Dec 2008 @ 7:35am


    maybe the guy should spend a little less time in court and more time cleaning his donut shop

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Matt, 10 Dec 2008 @ 7:51am

    anonymity cannot be removed, courts or not

    Here's the thing:

    Anonymity is a core of free speech. There will be constitutional arguments before that is lost, for sure. In addition, you can't truly stop online anonymity. Proxies, encryption, vpn, and a whole variety of other tools available ensure that even if you try to remove anonymity, it cannot be enforced. Faking IPs, etc. Even if certain websites (major ones) decide to only accept identification for people to use them, everyone will flock elsewhere underground.

    This is like the music industry vs the world debate, where the more you make something illegal, the more underground it will become (prohibition fails).

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Dec 2008 @ 8:38am

    Re: Re:

    Zebulon means "dwelling of honor". It's the name of one of Jacob's sons in the bible. Amazing what you can find out using Google, isn't it?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Bob, 10 Dec 2008 @ 9:13am


    Citation Needed

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Avatar28, 10 Dec 2008 @ 1:17pm


    Isn't that a planet on Futurama or something?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. icon
    Derek Kerton (profile), 10 Dec 2008 @ 2:29pm

    Business Plan For Zebulon 5

    Plan: Use ju-jitsu to take the energy, and internet exposure of the complaint and turn it into profit. Here's how:

    1) Clean up your @#$@ store. Talk up how you listen to customers, and respond to their needs.

    2) Promote it as "The cleanest" Dunkin in the US. Post pictures, get an independent assessment, health inspection, post it all

    3) Offer a free Starbucks gift certificate to anyone who comes into your store, and can point out an unsanitary mess.

    4) Offer a free cup of coffee to anyone who prints the photos you've posted to blogs or online and brings it into the store.

    5) Refrain from being a litigious douchebag.

    6) Have an "anonymous" source tell local TV stations about your "about face".

    6) Kaching.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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