As readers of this blog know, I have steadily written about the unfolding laws of bloggers’ and their rights.
People that host blogs are generally protected by a section of federal statutes which shields them from liability for what others post. It allows for the free dissemination of speech in the Blogosphere. But when those postings are defamatory, a prospective litigant is not without redress. He indeed may sue the blog to disclose the IP address of the alleged defamer. Then, after acquiring the same, the aggrieved party can determine if he wants to sue the author, once tracked down.
It is therefore not surprising to see then that a Tennessee judge has ruled that a husband and wife who operate a halfway house for recovering drug abusers may unmask an anonymous blogger who allegedly defamed them. This usually requires suing the host of the blog. So they did.
The anonymous blogger accused a couple, Donald and Terry Keller Swartz of Old Hickory, Tennessee of committing arson, evading taxes and being drug addicts themselves. That is some serious defamation. They subpoenaed Google to reveal the blogger, and the blogger filed a motion to quash.
Judge Thomas Brothers ruled against the blogger:
“Internet anonymous speech is not entitled to absolute protection,” Brothers wrote in his Oct. 8 opinion (PDF posted by the Citizen Media Law Project). “The free speech of the defendant must therefore be balanced with the reputation and privacy interests of the plaintiffs.”
Brothers applied a five-step standard established in a 2001 New Jersey appellate case, Dendrite International v. Doe. It requires a reasonable attempt to notify the blogger, a reasonable time to respond, identification of allegedly defamatory statements, a substantial showing of proof, and a balancing of First Amendment interests.
Brothers said his decision may be immediately reviewed. What I can tell you is that a new era of American jurisprudence is unfolding, and it is going to require caution and a steadied jurisprudential hand to find the proper blend between free speech and wrongful abuse.