Critics Face Legal Woes

Stephen Yagielowicz

Many companies who find themselves being publicly criticized by “anonymous” sources are no longer taking a passive stance to these often-unsubstantiated assaults. For example, H&R Block recently filed a defamation suit against an unknown entity that the financial services company suspects is actually an employee of the firm.

While the defendant is currently anonymous, the suit was filed in the Kansas City federal court against the defendant’s ‘screen name,’ “John Doe, a/k/a ‘Enron junior’,” over alleged disclosures on Yahoo’s message board of confidential and misleading information. The lawsuit which seeks unspecified damages alleges that the defendant posted messages about a pending lawsuit.

Characterizing the poster’s comments as “false and inaccurate,” the suit alleges that the messages violated company policies, federal securities laws, and that they were defamatory.

Despite “diligent investigation,” H&R Block has not discovered the defendant’s identity, and as a result has subpoenaed Yahoo! to reveal the poster’s name – something that Yahoo! has done for Block in the past – after being subpoenaed in 2000 over nine individuals who allegedly posted confidential information.

While suits designed to compel ISPs to provide user information have increased, courts have typically sided with users, upholding their free speech rights, a California federal court case resolved in February, however, that a message board poster who was the plaintiff’s business competitor could face a defamation and unfair competition suit. Recognizing that message boards are a “public forum,” the court nonetheless held that the negative posts were actually “commercial” speech – and therefore not entitled to the same First Amendment protections as “political” speech.

According to H&R Block spokeswoman Linda McDougall, “Certainly anyone has the right to voice their opinions in a variety of forums, but when you cross the line from opinion and you’re stating something as fact that is not fact, you need to be held responsible for what you say.” While McDougall claimed that H&R Block respected an Internet poster’s privacy and anonymity, she stated that “…they have to take responsibility for what is posted.”