that Internet posters can't count on anonymity
© Knight Ridder/Tribune
In a case that both sides acknowledge has "novel issues of national
importance," a South Florida appellate court has endorsed a lower
court ruling that people posting messages on the Internet have no right
is a major step in civilizing the Internet," gloated Bruce D. Fischman,
who represents Erik Hvide, a former chief executive of Hvide Marine in
Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He is suing "John Does," who used such
screen names as Justthefactsjack, for allegedly making defamatory statements
all anonymity is removed from the Internet, we are going to end up significantly
stifling conversation," said Christopher A. Hansen, a lawyer with
the American Civic Liberties Union who helps represent the John Does in
are now more than 100 John Doe anonymity cases winding their way through
the nation's courts, the Hvide case has been written up in newspapers
from San Francisco to Boston, at least partly because the American Civic
Liberties Union has picked it to make a stand about freedom on the Internet.
have gotten smacked down twice on this," gloated Fischman. "This
means people are responsible for comments they make on the Internet. In
my opinion, it adds stability to the Internet."
was a big deal because it would have been the first time that an appellate
court would have been discussing the rights of these John Doe defendants,"
said Christopher K. Leigh, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who represents the
still-anonymous defendants in the Hvide case.
a law professor at the University of Florida who had worked with the ACLU
on the case, said, "We thought this might be the case for an appellate
court to set a historic precedent about the 1st Amendment in cyberspace."
the ACLU had asked the three-judge panel of the 3rd District Court of
Appeals to overturn a May decision by Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Eleanor
Schockett ordering Yahoo and AOL to reveal John Doe's identity. "Give
them anonymity and nothing holds them back," she explained. "That's
why the Ku Klux Klan wears hoods."
In its ruling,
the appellate court simply refused to review Shockett's decision.
Third DCA punted," Leigh said.
doesn't set a precedent outside this case," Lidsky said. "They
issued no written opinion."
is one of many in which large corporations and top executives are suing
to discover the identity of their critics on the Internet. In Hvide's
case, it is alleged that the anonymous postings caused the stock price
to fall and the board of directors to fire him.
nonsense," said Hansen of the ACLU. "The idea that a board of
directors would take seriously anonymous postings on an Internet chat
board it just doesn't make sense to me. Anybody knows you take
these chat boards with a grain of salt. These are water-cooler conversations."
said Hansen, is that angry executives hire lawyers to file barebones lawsuits
and then send subpoenas to Web sites like Yahoo, which generally reveal
identities without a fight.
this a "very pernicious practice" of silencing critics. "The
Internet has a great leveling effect, and some of these corporations are
scared by the truth. ... In many of these cases, they find out the identity
of the John Doe and then they drop the lawsuit."
would like to see the courts require some evidence of genuine legal harm
before a person's anonymity is broken. "A lot of these complaints
would be thrown out of court if anyone bothered to look at them,"
Hansen said. At least a half-dozen John Doe suits involve other South
Florida companies. In one, AnswerThink, a Coral Gables consulting firm,
learned through a subpoena that a contract employee was posting nasty
messages about the company on a Yahoo board. The company fired him shortly
before he was to receive a $896,000 fee, according to allegations in court
In the Hvide
case, it is expected that Yahoo will reveal the identity or identities
behind the screen names within a few days.
message from the 3rd District is that you don't automatically say what
you think," said Fischman, speaking by telephone from Harvard shortly
before he spoke on panel about the subject of anonymity and the Web. "If
it violates people's rights, if it's defamatory, you have to realize you
might end up in court. This is not chilling free speech, but being more