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John Doe No. 1 v. Patrick Cahill and Julia Cahill

884 A.2d 451, No. 266, 2005 (Del. Supreme Crt., October 5, 2005)

Evidence Sufficient To Survive Summary Judgment Must Be Submitted To Obtain Identity Of Anonymous Online Speaker

Reversing the Court below, the Delaware Supreme Court holds that to obtain the identity of an anonymous online speaker for the purpose of pursuing a defamation action, the defamed party must first submit to the Court evidence of their validity of such a claim sufficient to survive a summary judgment motion.  Requiring a plaintiff to submit evidence sufficient to establish the existence of a prima facie case strikes a more appropriate balance between the competing interests of free speech and an individual’s right to protect his reputation, than the “good faith” standard applied by the Trial Court.  Under that rejected standard, the plaintiff need only show he had a good faith basis for asserting his claim to obtain the anonymous speaker’s identity.

To obtain such disclosure, the Delaware Supreme Court held that the plaintiff must also undertake reasonable predisclosure efforts to notify the anonymous speaker that his identity is being sought.  In the Internet context, this will require a posting on the message board or chat room in which the purportedly defamatory statements were made.

Applying this ‘summary judgment’ standard to the case at bar, the Supreme Court held that the plaintiffs were not entitled to the identity of the anonymous speaker, as his statements were non-actionable statements of opinion insufficient as a matter of law to support a defamation action.  In reaching this result, the Court relief heavily on the fact that the statements were found in a blog which, like chat rooms, intends to be a vehicle for the expression of opinion and not fact.

Cahill Seeks Identity Of Anonymous Speaker He Claims Defamed Him

Plaintiff Patrick Cahill was a local Symrna politician who took offense at two statements made about him on the “Symrna/Clayton Issues Blog.”  These statements were made anonymously by an individual under the pseudonym “Proud Citizen” and were critical of Cahill’s performance as a councilman.

Cahill sought to obtain the identity of “Proud Citizen” so he could sue him for defamation.  Toward that end, Cahill obtained a court order requiring Comcast, “Proud Citizen’s” ISP, to disclose his identity.  As required by federal statutes, Comcast notified “Proud Citizen” of this request before providing disclosure.  “Proud Citizen” moved for a protective order, which application was denied by the Trial Court.  That court held that, to be entitled to the requested relief, Cahill need only show that he had a good faith basis for asserting a defamation claim against “Proud Citizen,” a test the Trial Court held Cahill had met.

Good Faith Basis For Bringing Suit Inadequate

On appeal, the Delaware Supreme Court reversed, holding the “good faith” test adopted by the Trial Court did not set the appropriate balance between the competing interests of free speech, and in particular, the right to speak anonymously about political issues, and the right to protect one’s reputation.

The Delaware Supreme Court held that a more rigorous showing was required to adequately protect anonymous speech.  To obtain this disclosure. a plaintiff must present evidence sufficient to survive a motion for summary judgment.  As stated by the Court:  “to obtain discovery of an anonymous defendant’s identity under the summary judgment standard, a defamation plaintiff ‘must submit sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case for each essential element of the claim in question.’”

The Court did make an exception to this rule in cases where the defamation action was brought by a public figure, such as plaintiff Patrick Cahill.  In such cases, the plaintiff would not be required to present evidence sufficient to establish that the anonymous speaker acted with “actual malice.”  While “public figure” plaintiffs bear the ultimate burden of establishing that the defendant acted with “actual malice to prevail on their defamation claim,” the Court held it was not appropriate to require a plaintiff to make such a showing at such an early stage in the proceedings, when plaintiff neither knew the defendant’s identity, nor had obtained any discovery as to the motivation for his conduct.

The Delaware Supreme Court held its summary judgment standard struck a better balance between the competing interests, providing needed protection from defamation suits brought only to unmask the plaintiff’s critic, so that if the plaintiff could pursue ‘self help’ remedies aimed at the speaker.  The Court found further support for its more rigorous standard in light of fact that at least in the Internet context, an injured plaintiff has the ability to set the record straight by posting his own view of the facts in the same location as the offending statements.

Predisclosure Notice To Anonymous Speaker Of Efforts To Obtain His Identity

To obtain the requested disclosure, the Court held that plaintiff, in addition to an evidentiary showing, must also undertake reasonable predisclosure efforts to notify the anonymous defendant that discovery was being sought.  In the Internet context, this required a posting on the bulletin board or chat room where the “offending” posts were first found. 

Applying the standard to the case at bar, the Delaware Supreme Court held that Cahill was not entitled to the requested relief, because the statements in question were non-actionable statements of opinion, and not fact.  The Supreme Court rested its holding largely on the fact that the statements were made in a blog, which, like a chat room, is a vehicle often used for the expression of personal opinion.  Indeed, noted the Court, that was the precise reaction one of the other participants, in the dialogue had to “Proved Citizen’s” comments.

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