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The summary judgment standard is the appropriate test by which to strike the balance between a defamation plaintiff's right to protect his reputation and a defendant's right to exercise free speech anonymously. Before a defamation plaintiff can obtain the identity of an anonymous defendant through the compulsory discovery process he must support his defamation claim with facts sufficient to defeat a summary judgment motion. In the internet context, the plaintiff's efforts should include posting a message of notification of the discovery request to the anonymous defendant on the same message board as the original allegedly defamatory posting; (2) to set forth the exact statements purportedly made by the anonymous poster that the plaintiff alleges constitute defamatory speech; and, (3) to satisfy the prima facie or summary judgment standard.
Using the alias "Proud Citizen," appellant posted two statements on an internet website sponsored by a news agency concerning the councilman's performance. The statements referred to the councilman as paranoid and full of character flaws and mental deterioration. Armed with appellant's internet provider address, appellees obtained an order requiring the Internet Service Provider to disclose appellant's identity. The trial court issued that order by adopting a good faith standard for determining when a defamation plaintiff could compel disclosure of the identity of an anonymous defendant.
Did the trial court correctly apply the good faith standard in ordering that the Internet Service Provider disclose appellant’s identity?
The court disagreed with the application of the good faith standard and held that, to obtain discovery of an anonymous defendant's identity, the summary judgment standard applied, requiring a defamation plaintiff to submit sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case for each essential element of the claim in question. Applying such standard, the court held that no reasonable person would have interpreted the statements as anything other than opinion.