The Maryland Court of Appeals issued a decision yesterday in Independent Newspapers, Inc. v. Zebulon J. Brodie protecting the identity of anonymous Internet posters and, for the first time, offering guidelines for that state’s courts to follow in libel cases before compelling disclosure of online commenters’ identities.

The five-step process the court adopted was borrowed from Dendrite Int’l, Inc. v. John Doe No. 3, 775 A.2d 756 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2001) and explicated in detail in yesterday’s 43-page majority opinion. It seeks to help trial courts “balance First Amendment rights with the right to seek protection for defamation” by suggesting they:

•Require that plaintiffs notify anonymous parties that their identities are sought.•Give the posters time to reply with reasons why they should remain nameless.

•Require plaintiffs to identify the defamatory statements and who made them.

•Determine whether the complaint has set forth a prima facie defamation, where the words are obviously libelous, or a per quod action, meaning it requires outside evidence.

•Weigh the poster’s right to free speech against the strength of the case and the necessity of identity disclosure.

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