Hearings Delayed in Online Defamation Case Involving New Jersey Theatre Group

Commentary: A Court hearing in a New Jersey online defamation case involving a community theatre group called the Marlboro Players has been delayed. The hearings were schedule to take place on June 12, 2008 in the Superior Court of New Jersey in Freehold Township.

The case stems from comments that were posted in an online theatre forum on the Internet site NJ.com. The complaint filed by the Marlboro Players alleges that the 11 anonymous defendants named in the suit, each listed as John Doe, used various screen names to post defamatory statements against both the organization and several named individuals. The complaint asserts that the statements were intentionally made with the purpose of demeaning and humiliating the community theatre group and its members and participants.

The Marlboro Players are seeking actual damages to be determined at trial and punitive damages in the amount of $100,000. The group alleges that the anonymous posts have damaged the reputation of the theatre company and have had a negative effect on recruiting participants and the theatre’s ability to bring in revenue.

In bringing suit against the anonymous posters, the Marlboro Players served a subpoena on the operators of the NJ.com website, demanding that they produce identifying information provided by each anonymous individual at the time of signup. In response, the attorneys for the anonymous defendants filed a motion to quash the subpoena.

In the hearings which were supposed to have taken place on June 12, the judge was to issue a decision on whether or not to grant the defendants’ motion. Should the judge eventually rule in favor of the Marlboro Players, the organization will proceed with its civil lawsuit alleging defamation, and the anonymous posters will have the right to appeal the judge’s decision.

Notably, in signing up on NJ.com, all users must accept a user agreement which provides in part: “You agree no to use any obscene indecent, or offensive language or to provide to or post on or through the Web site any graphics, text, photographs, images, video, audio or other material that is defamatory, abusive, bullying, harassing, racist, hateful, or violent.” Arguably, therefore, an action could be brought based on the fact that NJ.com is not enforcing its own rules.

This case brings up the interesting interplay between the rights of anonymous posters against the rights of the individuals and entities being defamed. It is a well established principle of law that a person has a First Amendment right to engage in free speech anonymously. However, when an inaccurate or exceedingly offensive posting causes harm to another, the law must provide a remedy that takes into account the rights of the victim, as well.

It remains to be seen how New Jersey courts will decide this case as the courts of other states have gone in different directions. As a result of the delay in the court proceedings, the identities of the anonymous posters will remain unknown, at least for the time being. As of the date of this post, no further hearings had been scheduled in the matter.

Comments/Questions: ljm@gdnlaw.com

© 2008 Nissenbaum Law Group, LLC