The identity of “Hipcheck16” will remain private, according to a Cook County Appellate Court decision released today, Nov. 17.
The court ruled that the online comments directed at Lisa Stone’s teenage son are protected by the right to anonymous free speech, and that Stone, who filed the suit on her son’s behalf, failed to prove her defamation claim.
“I’m disappointed, but I look forward to the Illinois Supreme Court reviewing this issue,” said Stone, who pledged to pursue the case.
The ruling overturns a Cook County Circuit Court decision in 2009 to furnish Stone with the identity of the anonymous commenter.
The decision is the latest development in a court battle that began more than two years ago after an exchange on a Daily Herald comment board between Hipcheck16 and a commenter posing as "UncleW" concerning Stone’s 2009 trustee campaign. After UncleW publicly revealed that he was Stone’s son, Hipcheck16 made what Stone described as a defamatory remark toward the then-15-year-old.
The exchange between the two included an invitation from UncleW to “show yourself in person.”
“With all your resources I’m sure you could navigate your way over to the Stone confines. Then I’ll be glad to have this conversation with you, however, I will not comment on these blogs where anyone can be anyone,” UncleW wrote to Hipcheck16.
Hipcheck16 later replied, “Thanks for the invitation to visit you .. but I’ll have to decline. Seems like you’re very willing to invite a man you only know from the internet over to your house — have you done it before, or do they usually invite you to their house?”
Stone initially filed a suit in 2009 against the publisher of the Daily Herald in an effort to learn the identity of Hipcheck16, whose comment, she said, was sexual in nature and inappropriate for a minor. When the newspaper provided the name of the Internet service provider and the IP address, Stone subpoenaed Comcast to learn the name and street address of the person connected to the IP address. The information was provided to the court.
Since then, Stone has fought to receive that information, while attorneys for Hipcheck16 have maintained that his anonymity is protected by citizens’ right to free speech.
The Appellate Court judges wrote in their ruling that “we do not agree that a sexual connotation is inherent in [Hipcheck16’s] statement. … even if a sexual connotation can be read into [the comment], his comment may represent nothing more than an admonishment that [UncleW’s] conduct in inviting [Hipcheck16] to meet in person was unwise, not that [UncleW] actually solicits or has been solicited for sex with anonymous men on the internet.”
Stone said she does not see how “that statement can be construed innocently.” The comment from Hipcheck16 “is not just a question, it’s an implication,” she said.
“No 15-year-old deserves to be spoken like that by an adult, ever,” she said. “There have to be very clear rules on how adults speak to or treat children, or put them in such a light.”
“All one has to do is look around the world, on the Internet or even at the recent tragedy at Penn State,” Stone said. “When we’re trying to decide who to protect, we shouldn’t be protecting the adults but protecting the kids.”
In their Nov. 17 conclusion, the Appellate Court judges stated, in part:
“Our nation has long prized a citizen’s right to speak anonymously. With the proliferation of the seemingly limitless vehicles for such speech on the Internet and the various forms of social media, our citizens now have outlets for anonymous free speech that were quite simply unimaginable only a decade ago. While the law is clear that there is no right to defame another citizen, we cannot condone the inevitable fishing expeditions that would ensue were the trial court’s order to be upheld. Encouraging those easily offended by online commentary to sue to find the name of their ‘tormenters’ would surely lead to unnecessary litigation and would also have a chilling effect on the many citizens who choose to post anonymously on the countless comment boards for newspapers, magazines, websites and other information portals. Putting publishers and website hosts in the position of being a ‘cyber-nanny’ is a noxious concept that offends our country’s long history of protecting anonymous speech.”