Former Mayor Fights for Disclosure of Personal Information
August 10, 2011
The Ontario Superior Court ruling in the case of Phyllis Morris vs. auroracitizen.ca provided a reminder of the value of court oversight in cases seeking the disclosure of personal information. According to the Montreal Gazette, in 2010 the website auroracitizen.ca featured an online chat forum where participants discussed a local election campaign, which included postings about Phyllis Morris, the former mayor of Aurora.
Morris lost the 2010 election and immediately took legal action against the chat forum moderators, its lawyers, and website host, asking the court to order them to disclose the identity of three anonymous posters. According to the article, Morris wanted the information so she could continue with a defamation lawsuit. Although she did not specifically identify them, she claimed that six posts were defamatory.
The article noted that the Internet has become a popular place for users to post political opinions because it offers a shield of anonymity. Many “whistleblowers” also depend on the Internet as a vehicle for anonymous free speech that protects them from facing repercussions. At the same time, many argue that this anonymity allows posters to cross the line into defamation without being accountable.
The Montreal Gazette reported that the court sided with the posters and refused to order their identities to be disclosed. It ruled that since Morris did not identify the specific defamatory words, she failed to establish a prima facie case [according to Law.com, a case in which “the evidence before trial is sufficient to prove the case unless there is substantial contradictory evidence presented at trial”] of defamation.
The court identified the question as balancing "the competing interests of privacy, the public interest in promoting the administration of justice by providing the Plaintiff with the information sought to pursue her claim and the underlying values of freedom of expression and political speech."
The court also noted that the posts involved political speech, which is especially deserving of protection. According to the article, the court identified four factors it considered in making its decision:
- Whether there was a reasonable expectation of anonymity
- Whether the plaintiff established a prima facie case of wrongdoing by the poster
- Whether the plaintiff tried to identify the poster and was unable to do so
- Whether the public interest favoring disclosure outweighed the legitimate interests of freedom of expression and right to privacy of the persons sought to be identified if the disclosure was ordered.
According to the Montreal Gazette, the court ruled that the posters had a reasonable expectation of anonymity and that there were insufficient efforts to try to identify them. The article also noted that the court’s careful analysis of the speech and privacy issues solidified the need for court oversight before ordering the disclosure of personal information.
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