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    Chicago Tribune: Illinois newspaper ordered to disclose commenter names

    The Chicago Tribune reports on a case (Maxon vs. Ottawa Publishing) in Illinois concerning privacy and newspaper comments. In a 2-1 opinion (pdf), the Third District Appellate Court in Ottawa, Illinois, ordered Ottawa Publishing Co. (which publishes the Times newspaper and its Web site, to reveal the names of two Web site commentators who are accused of defaming Donald and Janet Maxon, an Ottawa couple.

    The couple said the commenters suggested the Maxons bribed members of the Ottawa Plan Commission after they sought to add rooms to their house to establish a bed and breakfast, court records say.

    A La Salle County Circuit Court judge dismissed the couple’s motion, saying the Maxons had failed to establish that the commenters’ statements were defamatory, according to court records.

    Later that year, Ottawa Publishing filed a motion against the couple’s request. The company argued that “as with a growing trend in other jurisdictions, trial courts in Illinois must take extra steps to protect the anonymity of internet posters,” court records say. […]

    But on Tuesday, the panel of justices in the Illinois Appellate Court’s Third District reversed the decision to deny the Maxons’ request.

    In the opinion, Justice William Holdridge said, “There is no question that certain types of anonymous speech are constitutionally protected. However, it is overly broad to assert that anonymous speech, in and of itself, warrants constitutional protection. […] We find nothing in these cases to support the proposition that anonymous Internet speakers enjoy a higher degree of protection from claims of defamation than the private individual who has a cause of action against him for defamation.”

    The court found, “The statements that the Maxons bribed certain officials in order to obtain approval for their zoning request are not mere statements of opinion. […] We find that the statements purport to be factual allegations of bribery by the Maxons and must be answered.”

    In a dissent, Justice Daniel Schmidt said:

    The protection of the anonymity of speech is a separate issue from the defamatory nature of the speech. In other words, no one suggests that an anonymous speaker deserves a higher degree of protection from claims of defamation than an individual whose identity is known. Rather, it is the anonymity itself that is equally worthy of protection. […]

    However, even though a statement may fit into a defamatory per se category, it still may be constitutionally protected if it cannot reasonably be interpreted as stating actual fact. […]

    Any reasonable person would construe the words for what they were: the venting of one’s spleen by someone disgruntled by the decision of a local body politic.

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