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Illinois Supreme Court Rules Against Anonymous Commenter

the Illinois Supreme Court bench in the court's main building in Springfield
Brian Mackey
NPR Illinois

The Illinois Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that Comcast must disclose a customer's identity — that of an anonymous online commenter — so the individual can be sued for defamation.

The comment was posted on a newspaper website back in 2011, when Bill Hadley was running for a seat on the Stephenson County Board.

Someone going by “Fuboy” wrote: “Hadley is a Sandusky waiting to be exposed. Check out the view he has of Empire from his front door.”

Empire refers to an elementary school; Sandusky, you'll recall, was the pedophile football coach at Penn State.

  The commenter remains unidentified, but through a lawyer argues it was protected speech, but a unanimous Supreme Court rejected that, finding the Sandusky reference was in and of itself defamatory.

Hadley’s lawyer, Andrew Smith, says the same rules apply whether comments are made on the radio, in a newspaper or online.

“If you’ve got something to say (and) if it’s an opinion, that’s great," Smith says. "But you can’t go defaming somebody, on the Internet or anywhere else.”

Hadley won the election and is chairman of the Stephenson County Board.

Robert Fagan, the lawyer for the as-yet unidentified commenter, says says the defamation lawsuit is a backdoor way of silencing his client — what's known as a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, or SLAPP suit. He says the Illinois Supreme Court's decision could chill anonymous political commentary.

Fagan says his client has 90 days to decide whether to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Brian Mackey formerly reported on state government and politics for NPR Illinois and a dozen other public radio stations across the state. Before that, he was A&E editor at The State Journal-Register and Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.
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