Appeals court refuses to unmask anonymous donut shop critics

2 03 2009

Websites should not be forced to cough up identifying information about users who leave anonymous comments, according to the Maryland Court of Appeals. The court overturned a previous ruling late last week, saying that anonymous posters should have the same First Amendment rights as others on the Internet, and that they should be given the opportunity to respond to the threat of subpoena before having their identities handed over without their consent.

The case was originally brought by Dunkin’ Donuts store owner Zebulon J. Brodie against Independent Newspapers, which runs an online forum called Brodie said that three of NewsZap’s anonymous posters had made what he considered to be defamatory remarks about the cleanliness of his store, and asked the company to identify the individuals behind the negative comments. Independent Newspapers resisted, filing a motion to quash and saying that information about those users was protected by the First Amendment. However, a trial judge denied the motion and ordered the company to release information regarding the three posters, a decision that Independent Newspapers unsurprisingly appealed.

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