Illinois Court Protects Identity of Anonymous Online Speaker

Brompton Bldg., LLC v. Yelp!, Inc., 2013 WL 416185 (Ill.App. 1 Dist. January 31, 2013) The Appellate Court of Illinois has affirmed a trial court’s dismissal of the petition that an aggrieved real estate owner filed to discover the identity of a tenant who was badmouthing the petitioner’s rent-collection practices. The decision is a win for First Amendment rights in anonymous online speech.

A user identified only as “Diana Z. Chicago, IL” started a Yelp account, admittedly for the sole purpose of rating the company she thought managed her apartment building. She was upset the company had charged fees over late rent.

The apartment owner filed an action under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 224, in hopes of learning the Yelp user’s identity. Rule 224 provides that “[a] person or entity who wishes to engage in discovery for the sole purpose of ascertaining the identity of one who may be responsible in damages may file an independent action for such discovery.”

The trial court denied the petition, holding that the apartment owner failed to show how the Yelp user “may be responsible in damages.” The appellate court affirmed this holding, agreeing that the defamation claim failed.

The court held that under Illinois law, the challenged comments were not factual, but were instead in the nature of opinions. Moreover, the statements were not even about petitioner. Though petitioner managed the building at the time of the posting, the Yelp user erroneously referred to the former management company.

Courts called upon to order discovery of anonymous online speakers must carefully balance the free speech interests of the anonymous speaker with the right of an aggrieved party to seek redress for allegedly unlawful online comments. Decisions such as this one should provide confidence that the courts are willing to undertake the careful analysis needed to protect online privacy.