Identities Of Anonymous Writers In New Jersey Posting Allegedly Defamatory Statements On A Blog Are Not Subject To Disclosure

Upholding the decision of a trial judge who quashed a subpoena, New Jersey appellate court ruled that plaintiffs in a defamation suit over anonymous postings on a blog may not obtain the writers’ names via subpoena served on the corporate host of the blog. Somerset Development, LLC v. Cleaner Lakewood, Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division (Docket No. A-2819-10, September 26, 2012)

Plaintiffs are a real estate developer and his company which purchased and developed real estate in the Township of Lakewood, New Jersey. Plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against a group called “Cleaner Lakewood” and anonymous individuals who posted allegedly defamatory blogs as well as comments on Cleaner Lakewood’s website-blog hosted by Google, called, seeking both damages and injunctive relief. The statements called plaintiff real estate developer a “rip off artist” and an “under the table crook, ” claiming plaintiff “shortchanged the taxpayers with millions,” “cost taxpayers when he took a piece of township land on County Line Road without paying for it,” and “paved the way for the senior citizen vote by stealing 6 million in tax dollars.”

Plaintiffs could not serve their complaint on any of the defendants because defendants’ identities were unknown.  Therefore, plaintiffs served a subpoena on Google, the website operator, seeking the defendants’ identities. In response, the website operator and an unknown number of anonymous posters filed a motion to quash the Google subpoena, and plaintiffs filed opposition to the motion as well as a cross-motion to compel defense counsel to identify the anonymous defendants whom counsel represented.

The trial court granted the defendants’ motion and quashed the subpoena, finding the subpoena was overbroad, and the offending postings were “more or less opinion….”  The trial court also denied plaintiffs’ cross-motion seeking to compel defense counsel to identify the anonymous persons he represented. Plaintiffs appealed.

On appeal, the appellate panel balanced the plaintiffs’ right to redress with the defendants’ First Amendment right to anonymous speech. To overcome the defendants’ constitutional right to anonymous speech, the Court ruled that plaintiffs must prove that they have a prima facie cause of action for defamation. In reviewing the alleged defamatory statements, the Court found that comments using “epithets, insults, name-calling, profanity and hyperbole,” such as those in the instant case, are not  legally actionable, although they may be hurtful to the listener. The Court reasoned that:

These statements primarily reflect the opinions of the authors and at best are “rhetorical hyperbole” on matters of public concern involving a public figure.  As such, the published statements were nonactionable, and disclosure of the identity of the anonymous defendants was not warranted. Because the offending publications are not actionable,plaintiffs are not entitled to  the identity of the anonymous defendants represented by defense counsel.

The case is annexed here – Somerset Development, LLC v. Cleaner Lakewood