Maxon v. Ottawa Pub. Co., — N.E.2d —, 2010 WL 2245065 (Ill.App. 3 Dist. June 1, 2010)
The rules of civil procedure in Illinois permit an aggrieved party to file a petition with the court asking for an order requiring unknown potential defendants to be identified. This is called a Rule 224 petition.
A couple from Ottawa, Illinois got their feelings hurt over some anonymous comments left in response to content published by the local newspaper on its website. Wanting to sue for defamation, the couple filed a Rule 224 petition. The newspaper opposed the petition. (For something similar, see Enterline v. Pocono Medical Center.)
The trial court denied the petition, applying the standards articulated in Dendrite v. Doe and Doe v. Cahill, finding that the petitioners had not presented a strong enough case for defamation to justify the unmasking of the anonymous commenters. Those cases require, among other things, that a party seeking to identify an anonymous speaker make efforts to notify the anonymous party, and present enough evidence to establish a prima facie case of defamation (Dendrite) or survive a hypothetical motion for summary judgment (Cahill).
The aggrieved couple sought review with the Appellate Court of Illinois. Reviewing the decision to deny the Rule 224 petition de novo, the court reversed and remanded, ordering the identification of the anonymous speakers to be made.
In reaching its decision, the court rejected the newspaper’s (and amicis’) arguments that the trial court should apply the rigorous standards of Dendrite and Cahill. That’s not to say, however, that the court left anonymous speakers at great risk of having their First Amendment rights trampled upon.
The court held that the mechanics of Rule 224 adequately protect the potential First Amendment rights of anonymous internet speakers. Here’s why, according to the court:
- The petition must be verified – the threat of the pain of perjury should keep out half-hearted claims.
- The petition must state the reason discovery is necessary.
- The discovery is limited only to learning the identity of the potential defendant.
- Most importantly, before the discovery will be permitted, the court must hold a hearing and determine the petition sufficiently states a cause of action.
In this fourth step, the court is to apply the standard it would apply in a Section 2-615 motion. Such a motion is, essentially, the Illinois version of a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. That is no insignificant test, because unlike federal court and other state jurisdictions, Illinois requires fact pleading. That means the petition needs to include a significant amount of specific information to survive the motion to dismiss.
A troubling aspect of the ruling is the omission from the test of a requirement that the party seeking discovery attempt to notify the anonymous target of the inquisition. The appellate court held that a trial court may, in its discretion, impose such a requirement.
But it would be nice to know that the real party whose First Amendment interests are at stake (the anonymous speaker) is guaranteed a fair opportunity to argue from his or her perspective. After all, it’s that party with the real incentive to do so. Let’s hope the trial courts exercise that discretion wisely (and that they know in the first place that they have that discretion).