Not So Easy In The Big Easy

The battles over anonymous posters go on and on. Here is the most recent skirmish. Steve Theriot, the interim president of Jefferson Parish in Louisiana has filed lawsuit seeking the identities behind 11 user accounts of posters on the Web site. The site is the Web affiliate of the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper. Theriot and the parish government are plaintiffs. The suit claims that the posters put up defamatory messages that have caused Theriot and the parish government to suffer embarrassment. Here’s a sample post courtesy of “watchout41”: “Worse than that thier (sic) golden boy Theriot who is supposed to be the know all and king of ethics and ethics laws took the appointment knowing what happened,” the post stated. “He is so great that he did not know the law was broken with his first official act as parish president which was taking the oath to the office. ARROGANT MORONS I TELL YOU!” A poster identified as “viewfromhell” chimes in: “Theriot, just another Jefferson Parish politician thug mobster trained by his mentor John Alario, dressed up in a facade of respectability by a corrupt Louisiana Legislature.”

Theriot and the parish did not name the Web site or the newspaper as defendants. That’s a wise move, since the federal Communications Decency Act would prevent such a suit against the interactive computer service provider. That law, however, does not protect actual content providers, hence “watchout41” and “viewfromhell” cannot invoke that law. But they can invoke the First Amendment, which protects anonymous speech. And because it does, courts faced with this type of suit need to balance the interests of the anonymous speakers against the interests of the allegedly defamed party.

While there are several considerations that go into the balancing test, a key one is whether the underlying defamation claims has merit. That makes a lot of sense. It would not be a good idea to allow someone to file a bogus claim simply to discover the identity of the poster. So the court has to act as a gatekeeper. In this case, Theriot may find it tough to discover the faces behind “watchout41” and “viewfromhell.” Their statements look a lot like opinion and hyperbole. And courts generally don’t allow those kind of comments to form the basis of a libel claim. Especially when it concerns politics.

According to the article, the parish is footing the bill for this lawsuit. Which means that watchout41 and viewfromhell may have a whole lot of company when the taxpayers start commenting on that use of government funds.