In Hadley v. Subscriber Doe a/k/a Fuboy, the Illinois Supreme Court weighed in on defamation claims arising from anonymous internet posts.
In Hadley, an anonymous poster using the screen name “Fuboy” commented on an on-line article discussing Bill Hadley’s campaign for the Stephenson County Board. Fuboy commented that “Hadley is a Sandusky waiting to be exposed. Check out the view he has of Empire [Elementary School in Freeport, Illinois] from his front door.” After some procedural skirmishes in state and federal court, Hadley brought suit against “Subscriber Doe a/k/a ‘Fuboy’” claiming the “Sandusky” comment was defamatory per se. At the trial court’s prompting, Hadley subsequently added Comcast (Fuboy’s internet provider) as a respondent in discovery under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 224. The trial court found that, because Hadley’s complaint stated a claim (under the requirements of 735 ILCS 5/2-615) for defamation per se, he was entitled to relief under Rule 224, and ordered Comcast to provide the identification.
Fuboy appealed but the appellate court affirmed, explaining that a plaintiff’s right to the identity of an anonymous poster should be determined based on whether the complaint could survive a motion to dismiss.
Ultimately, the Illinois Supreme Court agreed to hear Fuboy’s appeal and affirmed the lower courts’ rulings.
Most notably, the Court decided that it was sufficient to sue someone under their screen-name (e.g., Fuboy). Under Illinois law, a complaint naming an unknown “John Doe” as a defendant is a legal nullity. Fuboy argued for similar treatment because Hadley had not named an individual. The Court disagreed because Hadley had not used “John Doe” simply as a placeholder for an unknown defendant. Rather, the Court explained, “Hadley filed his claim against a real person, using a validly adopted alias chosen by the defendant.” This holding should become more important as posters increasingly use screen names on social media platforms in lieu of their real names (e.g., Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, etc.)
On the anonymous poster question, the Court approved the motion to dismiss standard as the proper test for under Illinois Rule 224 for demonstrating a case has sufficient merit to obtain the identity of a person posting anonymously in order to bring suit against them. The opinion therefore lays out a procedural road map for future litigation over anonymous internet comments in Illinois.
The Hadley case now returns to the trial court, where, presumably, Hadley will receive the defendant’s name.