A case working its way through the federal courts could have major implications for the ability of online reviewers and commenters to remain anonymous. The case, now pending before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, involves the Justice Department seeking to get the identities of online reviewers who criticized a veterans health care company that's under federal investigation. The site which hosted the critical reviews has refused to provide identity info to the feds, arguing they are protected by the First Amendment. But the Justice Department claims the reviewers should be identified as potential witnesses to criminal conduct.
This isn't the first time the Trump Administration has gotten involved in the issue of online privacy. While this case was brought by the federal government, several private companies have brought similar cases looking to identify online critics for defamation claims. "What the employers are claiming is that their employees, or former employees, through these postings have lied and disparaged their business," says Charles "Rocky" Rhodes, professor at South Texas College of Law Houston. He tells KTRH that there are limits to free speech online. "You do have a right to speak anonymously," says Rhodes. "But, you can lose that right if you invade the rights of others by committing defamation or threats."
Most courts have generally ruled in favor of protecting the anonymity of online reviewers in cases brought by private companies, but the circumstances of the current case brought by the federal government could test the limits of free speech online. "Where you might, when posting these anonymous reviews, get into trouble and may have the potential of your identity being revealed, is if you start to make assertions of fact that are false," says Rhodes. "There are situations where your anonymous free speech rights can be lost, when you're acting outside the boundaries of what is protected free speech under the U.S. Constitution."