Texas Court Takes Up Online Anonymity

Whether it's social media, business reviews or plain old comment sections, everyone knows that online forums can get pretty ugly.  In fact, there's even technology developed to find and take out toxic online comments.  But now the issue of anonymous online comments has made it to the courts.  The Texas Supreme Court is considering a case brought by a company called Andra Group, which is looking to identify the source of critical comments made against Andra on the review website Glassdoor.  Andra claims the comments were defamatory and cost the business tens of thousands of dollars, and wants Glassdoor to reveal the source of the comments. 

The court's ruling is expected to have major legal repercussions.  "This is a very important case, because it is going to establish what are the First Amendment protections for anonymous online comments," says Charles "Rocky" Rhodes, professor at South Texas College of Law-Houston.  "What exactly are the standards to be used in making the determination of whether somebody's online identity can be unmasked."

In this particular case, Rhodes points out that the comments used could be considered defamatory and slanderous if false.  "They accused (Andra) of things like hiring workers who were unlawfully in the United States, they said that somebody at the company was a racist, they said that the company was violating federal labor law," says Rhodes.

What complicates the case is the First Amendment concerns that are involved.  "The court has to try to strike a balance between the right of individuals to comment anonymously, which is protected by the First Amendment, and the rights of both individuals and businesses not to be slandered and libeled," says Rhodes.

The court heard oral arguments recently.  There's no timetable for when it will issue a ruling.

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