The Indiana Court of Appeals recently handed down its decision on a case involving allegedly defamatory anonymous comments posted on an online news site.

Anonymous Internet comments

The Indianapolis Star had appealed a superior court decision ordering it to reveal the identity of an anonymous commenter who had made accusations about two former staffers of the Junior Achievement of Central Indiana. Former J.A. staff members who felt that they were defamed by the comments filed the suit against the sites where the alleged defamatory comments were posted.

The plaintiffs asked the court to compel the media outlets to reveal the posters' identifying information. While some outlets obliged, the Star refused, citing the State's Shield Laws and constitutional free speech rights. While the superior court ordered the Star to reveal the commenter's information, the Court of Appeals reversed.

In its opinion, the judge remanded the case to the superior court, requiring the plaintiffs to prove whether they suffered any damage as a result of the comment. After doing so, the superior court judge is to apply a new legal standard in order to determine the outcome of the case.

The new legal test, which would determine whether the commenter's information will have to be provided,  attempts to balance the right of free speech with the damage caused by alleged defamation. Interestingly, new standard does not require the plaintiffs to prove malice was behind the accusations. Thus, even if comments were in jest, they can still potentially be considered defamatory, and thus actionable.

According to an attorney quoted in the article, "With this decision, Indiana joins the growing consensus in state and federal courts around the country that (the balancing test) is the best way to reconcile the free speech rights of anonymous Internet speakers against the interest of plaintiffs who have been wronged by online speech."

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