N.B. newspaper ordered to name commenter
Court decisions to identify those who post a growing trend: law professor
A New Brunswick judge has ordered a Moncton newspaper to reveal the identity of an anonymous commenter after the person's online post was considered defamatory by its target.
The court order is a part of a growing trend of judges siding with complainants and forcing media companies to turn over the names of people commenting anonymously on its websites, according to a law professor.
The controversy started when Daryl Doucette, a Moncton firefighter, wrote a letter to the editor to the Moncton Times & Transcript in February criticizing a speed limit imposed on the province's ambulances.
A commenter using the name "Anonymous Anonymous" made two posts on the Irving-owned newspaper's online comment section and Doucette said statements made in those posts were defamatory.
Doucette states in court documents that an employee with Brunswick News Inc. told him the company would not surrender the identity of the anonymous poster without a court order.
So on June 23, Doucette took his fight to the New Brunswick Court of Queen's Bench where he requested a Norwich order. A Norwich order requires documents to be turned over before the start of legal proceedings.
Brunswick News did not send a lawyer to the court hearing.
In his June 29 decision, Justice George Rideout determined that Doucette had made reasonable efforts to identify the anonymous commenter and the posted material could be actionable in a defamation case.
"In my view, the interests of justice favour [Doucette] being able to proceed and to obtain a final ruling on this matter. As is said, [Doucette] is entitled to his day in court with all the attendant consequences of such proceedings," Rideout wrote in his decision.
"Consequently I believe the interests of justice favour obtaining the disclosure rather than non-disclosure."
Brunswick News wrote to the court indicating it would comply with the judge's decision.
Doucette has yet to file further legal action against the anonymous poster pending settlement talks.
Robert Currie, a law professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said the Moncton court case illustrates that privacy on the internet has its limits.
Currie said he's seeing a diminishing appetite on the part of websites and internet providers to protect people who anonymously post.
"If you defame somebody on the internet, the courts can compel anybody who has your [identity] to reveal it and a civil action can be brought against you for defamation," Currie said.
Currie said people should think twice before posting anything on the internet and more people are using the courts to compel media companies to hand over the names of anonymous commenters.
"This New Brunswick case is one of a few cases that are starting to play out all over the country where internet service providers and media organizations are being asked to hand over [information] that would identify internet users," he said.
In April, a Nova Scotia court ordered a Halifax weekly newspaper to release all the information it had to identify commenters, such as login information and computer IP addresses, involved in a controversy with two senior fire officials, who claimed to have been defamed.
The Coast published an article in April 2009 about allegations of racism within the Halifax regional fire service. That story prompted several online comments that quickly became the source of a court dispute.
Fire Chief Bill Mosher and deputy chief of operations Stephen Thurber wanted the names of seven anonymous commenters, who they say made allegations of racism, cronyism and incompetence.
Mosher and Thurber successfully argued in court that they needed to identify those commenters in order to defend themselves.
Once they had the names of the commenters, the two senior fire officials launched legal action in June against seven of them for defamation.
Currie said these legal decisions mean people posting comments on the internet need to understand that they do not have a lot of privacy.
"On the internet, there is very little privacy, although people feel like they have a great deal of privacy because when you're sitting at your computer, it feels very anonymous," Currie said.
"And yet, you can always be identified, unless you're very, very skillful."