Lawsuit seeks hidden names

Fight focuses on online rights

Staff WriterJuly 14, 2010 

In an online world where people can post derogatory, vindictive and misleading comments and then duck behind aliases, one Vance County man is challenging whether web forum moderators can be forced to reveal identities of those posters.

Thomas S. Hester Jr., a former Vance County commissioner seeking election again, filed suit earlier this year complaining that commenters under such aliases as "Fatboy," "Pearl," "The Real Deal" and "Ziggy" made defamatory comments about him on a real estate website.

The case represents one man's quest to rid the Internet of disparaging posts about his rental properties. But it touches on broad issues of how much anonymity the Internet provides and whether you can really ever know the identity of the person at the keyboard.

Hester's dispute is with Jason A. Feingold, editor of the website "Home in Henderson."

In August 2009, according to a judge's summary of the case, Feingold reported that eight people, some of them elderly, lived in squalor in a home owned by Hester. A tenant of Hester's, according to the summary, had sublet the property without his knowledge.

But in an online discussion about the report, several posters were critical of Hester and suggested that even if the property had been sublet, the owner should be held accountable for what the judge's summary described as "horrendous living conditions."

Hester, who filed a lawsuit seeking damages, sought to learn the identities of his online critics.

Feingold fought the attempts and hired Amanda Martin, a lawyer from Raleigh, to help him quash the subpoena seeking the names.

A right to hide?

Martin argued that the First Amendment protects the right to speak anonymously and that those protections should be extended to the commenters - that anonymous speech "can foster the free and diverse exchange of ideas."

Howard Manning, a Superior Court judge from Wake County who was doing a rotation in Vance County, held a hearing on the case and ruled June 28 that Feingold had 10 days to turn over the names of six commenters to Hester.

In his order, Manning said he balanced the First Amendment right of anonymous free speech against the strength of Hester's claims of defamation. He decided that not only was there evidence of libelous comments, but the identity of the commenters was central to Hester's case.

In today's online world, however, where people using assumed identities can post to the Internet using someone else's computer, it is not always easy to learn their identities.

One of the commenters made it easy; he revealed his identity on a Henderson radio show.

On Tuesday, Martin turned over as much information as Feingold had on two of the commenters, but not necessarily details that would reveal their identities.

Two of the posters contacted Martin to represent them, and late last week Manning agreed to give them extra time to work out a settlement to the dispute that might render the lawsuit moot.

anne.blythe@newsobserver.com or 919-836-4948

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