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Illinois high court: Comcast must reveal anonymous commenter

6-18-15 Illinois:

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. The Illinois Supreme Court has affirmed a lower court opinion ordering Comcast Cable Communications to identify a subscriber who posted an anonymous message suggesting a political candidate molests children.

The court said Thursday that the internet service provider must identify the subscriber who commented on a 2011 article in the Freeport Journal Standard about Bill Hadley's candidacy for the Stephenson County board.

The commenter, who used the online name "Fuboy," wrote that "Hadley is a Sandusky waiting to be exposed" because he can see an elementary school from his home. The comment was an apparent reference to former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky who was convicted of child sex abuse in 2012.

Hadley filed a defamation lawsuit against the commenter and subpoenaed Comcast demanding that it identify the subscriber. ..Source.. by

Hadley v. Subscriber Doe, 2015 IL 118000

Appellate citation: 2014 IL App (2d) 130489

JUSTICE BURKE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.
Chief Justice Garman and Justices Freeman, Thomas, Kilbride, Karmeier, and Theis concurred in the judgment and opinion.

This appeal is concerned with discovery in a defamation case. At the time the statement at issue was posted on the internet, the Sandusky sexual abuse scandal had dominated the national news for weeks. Jerry Sandusky was a coach with the famed Penn State football program. It was alleged that he had abused young boys sexually.

The plaintiff in this Stephenson County case was a former member of the county board when, on December 28, 2011, the Freeport Journal Standard published an online newspaper article entitled “Hadley returns to county politics. Candidate stresses fiscal responsibility.” The article discussed plaintiff’s decision to again seek election to the county board. Online readers could post comments and one of them, the defendant here, used the name “Fuboy” to post the following comment “Hadley is a Sandusky waiting to be exposed. Check out the view he has of Empire from his front door.” A school named Empire Elementary School is located in Freeport.

Hadley thought he had been defamed and filed suit. However, he did not know the name of the defendant. He sought a court order directing Comcast Cable Communications, Fuboy’s internet service provider, for the revelation of Fuboy’s identity. Plaintiff proceeded under Supreme Court Rule 224, which provides for discovery to identify persons who may be responsible in damages to a plaintiff. The circuit court granted the relief requested, issuing an order directing Comcast to provide the identification and last known address of the unknown defendant. The appellate court affirmed.

The test for whether this relief was proper is whether a plaintiff’s claim can survive a motion to dismiss. If it can, the rule’s requirement that identification of the defendant is “necessary” has been met. Both the circuit and appellate courts viewed the statement as defamatory per se for imputing commission of a crime. In this decision the Illinois Supreme Court said that, in its context, the comment is not reasonably capable of an innocent construction. Also, it cannot be characterized as a mere expression of opinion rather than of fact, because the statement has a precise and readily understood meaning, is verifiable, and signals factual content.

The courts below were correct in determining that the “necessity” required for relief under the supreme court’s discovery rule was present here. The disclosure order, and the appellate court’s affirmance of it, were upheld.

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