Cook County Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Lawrence ruled Monday that the identity of an anonymous poster to the Daily Herald Web site must be released to Buffalo Grove Trustee Lisa Stone, who claims the man - known by his screen name "Hipcheck16" and in court records as John Doe - defamed her teenage son during a contentious online exchange they had following last April's election.
The judge also entered a protective order barring disclosure of the man's identity to anyone but Stone, her attorneys and the Cook County sheriff.
The court received Hipcheck16's name and address in September after ordering Comcast, the commenter's Internet provider, to turn it over.
Stone's attorney argued that his client needs to know John Doe's identity to pursue a possible defamation lawsuit against him.
Referencing the "importance of freedom of expression," Mike Furlong, Doe's attorney, cited First Amendment protections in his argument to keep his client's identity confidential.
The case has attracted the attention of First Amendment activists who worry about attempts to curtail speech in any form, including online.
"The issue is political," said Furlong, "anonymous political speech in a forum dedicated for the exchange of ideas. And that's precisely the sort of speech that should be protected by the first amendment."
Stephen L. Tyma, Stone's attorney, argued that it isn't the case here.
"This was a statement intended to injure somebody, not the candidate but her son," said Tyma.
Neither party to the suit disputes the First Amendment protections of anonymous political speech, Lawrence said.
Lawrence went on to cite a 2008 case in which an anonymous blogger posted crude claims about a Yale University law student.
"The federal court held that the right to speak anonymously, on the Internet or otherwise, is not absolute and does not protect speech that would otherwise be unprotected," Lawrence said in his opinion. "The right to speak must be balanced against the right of an offended party to seek redress."
Stone applauded the ruling which she says will protect children. "I've been determined to ensure that justice is served in this situation and I feel this is one step closer," she said. "The Internet needs to be a safe place for children. There have to be boundaries."
Stone has not yet decided whether she will sue John Doe.
Furlong, of Waukegan's Trobe, Babowice & Associates, said John Doe's posting has been mischaracterized and indicated he might appeal the order and request a stay pending the appeal. Both sides return to court Nov. 18.