On October 28, the Virginia Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that has garnered significant national attention as it addresses the boundary line between the right to speak anonymously on the Internet and the right to identify who may be behind the message for purposes of a defamation claim.
Earlier this year, the Virginia Court of Appeals ruled that Yelp, Inc. (“Yelp”) must comply with a subpoena in a defamation lawsuit that would result in the identification of seven anonymous persons who posted critical comments about a carpet cleaning business, which Yelp appealed. The cleaning company suspects that the persons who posted the unfavorable reviews were not actually its customers. The appeal presents the weighing of the reviewers’ First Amendment free speech rights against a business’ right to protect its brand and reputation. Several large Internet companies, such as Facebook, Google and Twitter, have filed a “friend of the Court” brief with the Virginia Supreme Court, contending that the Court of Appeals’ ruling chills critical free speech which occurs on the Internet just as it has in town halls and private assemblies. The ruling of Virginia’s highest Court will likely be issued in early 2015, and we will be watching the result closely to report on its precedential impact.