New Jersey appellate court ruled that an anonymous online commenter must reveal his or her identity to members of a church who claim the commenter defamed them. Mauro v. Intellectual Freedom Foundation, Docket No. A-0004-15T2 (App. Div., February 26, 2016)

Plaintiffs were members of the World Mission Society Church of God (WMS). WMS was founded in South Korea in 1985 and its members are known for proselytizing house to house, in shopping malls, on college campuses and in hospitals.

WMS filed a complaint against the Intellectual Freedom Foundation, Inc. (IFF), and several fictitiously-named individuals whose identities were not known at the time the complaint was filed. Plaintiffs claimed defendants defamed plaintiffs, cast them in a false light, and caused them emotional distress through postings that appeared on a website operated by IFF (the website). The complaint cited two postings from “Carlos Doe,” one of the fictitiously-named defendants, intimating that two individual plaintiffs were engaged in an extramarital affair, and that the plaintiffs used “‘sexual innuendo'” to recruit new members to join WMS.

Plaintiffs posted legal notices on the website to give defendant posters a chance to present arguments in court to block a subpoena sought by plaintiffs to unmask the identities of the fictitiously-named defendants. One of those fictitiously-named defendants, “Carlos Doe,” moved for a protective order, which was denied by the trial judge, who also granted a stay. The appellate division granted Doe’s motion for leave to appeal.

On appeal, Doe argued that plaintiffs’ notices were untimely and ineffective, that plaintiffs failed to set forth a prima facie case of defamation, and that disclosure would chill his or her free speech rights and those of other internet users. The appeals court disagreed, and affirmed the ruling of the trial court. In that regard, the appeals court held that plaintiffs’ notices were timely and effective, and that plaintiffs set forth a prima facie case of defamation.

The appellate court also rejected defendant’s claim based upon his or her First Amendment right of free speech. The court ruled that:

[A]ccusing individuals of adultery in a public forum is not the kind of robust, publicly-spirited debate entitled to the protections of the First Amendment. Individuals choosing to harm another . . . through speech on the Internet cannot hope to shield their identity and avoid punishment through invocation of the First Amendment. 

The case is annexed here – Mauro v. Intellectual Freedom Foundation