Judge says: don’t defame, keep secret your name

tn_defamation.jpg Is “bigot” defamatory enough to pierce anonymity?

Thanks to Deep Cuz , who spotted a legal fracas that revolves around “bigot” being used as an anonymous comment to a blog posting  – and the ruling by a New York State judge that the word isn’t defamatory enough to warrant the forced disclosure of the poster’s identity.

Cuz directed me to Mike Masnick’s recent posting on Tech Dirt that, in turn, cites an analysis of the case that legal writer Vesselin Mitev posted on Law.com. Let me explore a few of the nuances in this case.

Mitev says it all began in January when a disagreement over school board policies erupted on Orthomom a blog that is a sounding board for Othodox Jews in the “Five Towns: area of Long Island (New York state; Lawrence is one of the towns). Anonymous comments labeled then school board member Pamela Greenbaum a “bigot.” She sued for libel and sought the the name of her anonymous detractor. That involved Google, which hosts Orthomom through its Blogger.com site, and thus was joined the case, Greenbaum v. Google (102063/07). Mitev writes that Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Marcy S. Friedman decided that:

“pre-action disclosure is not available unless there is ‘a meritorious cause of action’ and the information sought was ‘material and necessary to the actionable wrong.’ . . . Paul Alan Levy of the Washington, D.C.-based Public Citizen Litigation Group represented Orthomom . . . “A person doesn’t get to identify the alleged wrongdoer without some evidence [of wrongdoing]. . .” Mr. Levy said.

In short, bigot is not insult enough to constitute defamation, at least not of a public figure. Note that in New York “Supreme Court” is the trial court so this is just one decision and not, I think, a precedent so much as it is a prod to make us think about what responsibility bloggers have to police the comments on their site and what recourse people have to confront or refute harsh words said against them (for instance blogger Tom Foremski suggests a “Right to Respond“ should be built into interactive media).

Mitev concludes his analysis by noting that neither Greenbaum’s lawyer, Adam B. Feder, of Feder & Rodney in Brooklyn, or Google’s attorney, Tonia O. Klausner, of the Manhattan office of Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati, returned calls.

Fascinating case. I wonder how many of these Google gets?