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Victory for Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic as Appeals Court Upholds Online Anonymity

The Illinois Court of Appeals has overturned a lower court ruling ordering the disclosure of the identity of a person who had criticized a political candidate on a newspaper website. In its decision Nov. 17, the appeals court said, “While the law is clear that there is no right to defame another citizen, we cannot condone the inevitable fishing expeditions that would ensue were the trial court’s order to be upheld.”

Yale Law School’s Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic (MFIA) had filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, together with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

While defamatory or other actionable speech may allow for the unmasking of an online speaker, MFIA and EFF argued that the First Amendment requires a heightened standard for unmasking anonymous speakers in order to protect robust debate – political or otherwise.

“Politicians cannot pry into someone’s life just because they’ve been publicly criticized,” said Margot Kaminski ’10, co-founder of MFIA and currently executive director of Yale Law School’s Information Society Project. “Because of the enormous potential of abuse, the First Amendment requires showing that there’s a legitimate case before using the courts to unmask anonymous speakers. We’re pleased the Illinois Court of Appeals protected free speech rights in this case and recognized the potential chilling effect of such fishing expeditions on citizens who choose to post anonymously.”

Read the EFF press release on the decision.