Court Rules ISPs Must Divulge Defamers

A Florida court ruled this week that Yahoo! and AOL must divulge the names of anonymous people who posted alleged defamatory remarks on Internet bulletin boards.

Aired on: October 19, 2000


Internet message boards can be great if you're looking for information on a public company, but they can also be dangerous if you post the wrong message.

"The Internet, like the world off the Internet, has responsibility and civility that goes with it."

A Florida appeals court ruled this week that Internet service providers must reveal the identities of anonymous people who post defamatory comments on their message boards.

Attorney Bruce Fischman represented a man named Erik Hvide in the Florida case.

After anonymous web surfers posted alleged defamatory comments about Hvide on Yahoo! and AOL message boards, he was fired from his CEO post at Hvide Marine, Inc. Hvide wouldn't comment on the matter, but his lawyer hails the ruling.

"If you're going to speak and if you injure somebody and defame somebody, then you may be held responsible and hailed into court."

The American Civil Liberties Union rallied to protect the anonymous posters in this case. The ACLU says the appeals court didn't bother to even figure out whether the postings were false and harmful. And in that respect, they say the courts are taking away the public's right to free speech.

"Before a person's identity is unmasked, there should be at least a threshold determination made by the court that in fact the information is defamatory. And they didn't do that? No, the court did not do that."

According to Marshall, this decision won't be precedent-setting because the appeals court didn't offer an opinion on the case, but simply refused to review a lower court's decision. So, barring a successful appeal in a higher court, Yahoo! and AOL will have to release the names, which both companies say they'll do. But the ACLU still thinks it can convince the courts Internet speech is no different from any other kind of speech.

"If someone stood out in front of the plant and passed out flyers with the same kind of criticism with no name on it, that passes first amendment grounds. Why should it be any different when we're on the Internet."