Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
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The Supreme Court of Kentucky refused to allow the disclosure of the identity of anonymous users of a website who allegedly defamed a public figure, Hickman, because he failed to provide sufficient evidence proving the falsity of the statements. The Court reasoned that because Hickman brought the case, he bore the burden of proof, but his bare denials failed to reach a sufficient standard to convince the court to pierce the anonymous protection that the John Does were afforded. Baring evidence for a prima facie showing, the Court was unable to move to the next step of balancing the First Amendment right to anonymous speech with the right of those harmed to seek redress. The Court also reiterated the importance of free speech especially when it is political in nature and aimed at public officials but, also, that this freedom is subject to limitations.
The Appellee in this case, William Hickman, filed an action in circuit court alleging that users (John Does) on the website entitled “Topix” had posted defamatory statements of him. As the users of the website were anonymous, Hickman issued subpoenas to Topix to try and ascertain the identity of the users that allegedly defamed him. The John Does moved to quash the subpoenas and the trial court denied the motion to quash.
The case was then filed in the Court of Appeals on a writ of prohibition. The Court of Appeals identified a two-step test outlined in former case law Cahill, for obtaining the identity of the John Does, which included “(1) giving notice and opportunity to be heard and (2) making a prima facie showing sufficient evidence to defeat a summary judgment motion.” Pg. 3.
The Court of Appeals remanded to the Circuit Court with this new standard. The Circuit Court found in favor of Hickman and ordered the John Does to reveal their identities. This was appealed as a matter of right to the Supreme Court of Kentucky.
Justice Noble delivered the opinion of the Court.
First, the Court looked to recent decisions to find which test was applicable in other cases that similarly involved protected anonymous speech. The Court found that the four-step process outlined in Dendrite was the appropriate test because it provided the best means of striking “a balance between the First Amendment right to anonymous speech and the right of those harmed to seek legal redress”. The four-part process (as opposed to the 2 part test in Cahill applied by the Court of Appeals) is: “(1) the plaintiff must make reasonable efforts to notify anonymous speakers that their identity is being sought, and give them a reasonable opportunity to object; (2) the plaintiff must identify and set forth the exact alleged defamatory statements; (3) the court must carefully review the entire record to determine whether the plaintiff has stated a prima facie cause of action sufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, and, in addition, whether the plaintiff has provided sufficient evidence supporting each element of the cause of action; and (4) the court must balance the anonymous free speech rights against the strength of the prima facie case presented.” [Pg. 10.]
The Court noted the sanctity of free speech, especially when that speech is political in nature and is aimed at public officials. Further, the protection of free speech also encompasses anonymous public speech that occurs on the internet. However, the Court said “this freedom of speech is not without limit” [Pg. 14], specifically it noted that speech that is obscene or defamatory does not enjoy the same free speech protections. It went on to explain that the U.S. Supreme Court had not yet provided guidance for the discovery of the identity of anonymous internet speakers in a defamation case so that the question was currently left to individual states to determine.
Applying the test established in Dendrite, a New Jersey case, the Court found that the first and second prongs were easily satisfied in this case. However, the Court had to take a look at the third and fourth prongs to make a final determination. The first inquiry for the Court was whether the statements submitted by Hickman were actually defamatory. The majority of the statements were simply opinion, but some statements accused Hickman of official misconduct in office. However, the Court emphasized that to prove defamation, Hickman must establish that these statements were indeed false. It was his burden in order to bring a case for defamation, and his bare denials of truth failed to reach that standard and allow the Court to pierce the anonymous protection the John Does were afforded. Hickman would need to provide some type of specific proof that the statements were false. Further, applying the fourth prong in Dendrite, the Court said it couldn’t say that the right to anonymity is outweighed by a prima facie case for disclosure because the weakness of the bare denials meant that a prima facie case had not been made. The Court also discussed whether the attorney could be required to disclose the identity of his anonymous clients. The Court found that only if Hickman could establish a prima facie case could the attorney be required to disclose the identity of his clients, although not their confidential communications. Therefore, the Court reversed the Court of Appeals decision denying the petition for a writ of prohibition and remanded to the trial court for issuance of the writ.
Justice Venters wrote separately to concur in the result but disagree on the majority reasoning. Specifically he said that Hickman’s denials would be facially sufficient for a prima facie case for defamation. However, he said that the offending statements didn’t amount to actionable defamation.
Justice Cunningham wrote separately to dissent, finding that Hickman submitted an affidavit asserting falsity which would be sufficient to prove the communications false in this stage of the proceedings, for the narrow issue of ascertaining the identity of the John Does.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This case expands expression by ruling that a plaintiff must make a prima facie case for defamation before the Court is able to balance whether the overall extent of the defamation is so great that it outweighs the protection given to anonymous public speech and merits disclosure of the identity of anonymous speakers.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
As a decision of the Supreme Court of Kentucky this decision binds lower Kentucky courts.
Let us know if you notice errors or if the case analysis needs revision.