KY Supreme Court rules First Amendment protects identities of an - WDRB 41 Louisville News

KY Supreme Court rules First Amendment protects identities of anonymous internet commenters

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LOUISVILLE, Ky., (WDRB) -- In a case with obvious wide-spread implications, a divided Kentucky Supreme Court on Thursday refused to order that anonymous internet commenters be identified as part of a defamation lawsuit.

Bill Hickman, chairman of the Pike County Airport Board, had sued two posters on who had repeatedly berated him for being "incompetent" and accusing him of corruption and wasting millions of dollars.

Saying the allegations were false, Hickman sued "John Doe No. 1" and "John Doe No. 2" in Pike Circuit Court in 2013 -- and has been battling to learn their identities since.

But the high court ruled, at least in part, that the First Amendment protected the right of the commenters to speak freely (and anonymously), especially when talking about public figures.

"And naturally, when public speech is 'free,' that speech will contain comments critical of those who seek to govern," according to the ruling. "Indeed, it is inherent in a democracy that only by exercising one's voice can the individual citizen truly participate in the governance of society. Sometimes, negative things just need to be said."

While there are limits to free speech -- such as obscenity and malice -- Hickman would need to prove the statements were false and defamatory, with more than just a blanket denial.

The anonymous commenters accused Hickman of three possible "illegalities" in his role as chairman of the airport board, including squandering an $8 million budget on "useless projects."

"The overall tone of the comments collectively is scathing," the high court acknowledged. "And Hickman's response to the comments is understandable."

But "the question is whether the comments are false, and eventually whether they were made with actual malice," according to the justices.

Thus far, Hickman has only said the statements are false and provided an audit that did not disclose any "accounting crimes" in the airport board's business, according to the ruling.

The high court determined Hickman has failed to prove not only that the anonymous statements were false, but that they were made with malice, the court ruled.

In a dissenting opinion, Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham noted that the other justices were requiring Hickman to "prove a negative" without being able to get evidence from those making the allegations.

"Our culture is becoming increasingly saturated by malicious memes and other online chatter," Cunningham said in a dissent joined by Justice Samuel Wright III. "This case presents a novel claim that is likely to have a great impact on the citizens of our Commonwealth."

The high court ruled by a 4-2 vote. 

The case has been sent back to Pike Circuit Court where Judge Eddy Coleman had ordered attorneys for the anonymous commenters to identify them.

Copyright 2016 WDRB News. All rights reserved. 

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