When Ralph Zucker, president of Somerset Development of Lakewood, was attacked by anonymous blog postings, he struggled to pinpoint who to administer a defamation suit. What to do? Why not force Google to expose the bloggers? The New Jersey appeals court, however, barred the attempt, claiming that since he was a public figure and the blogs addressed public concern, the “rhetorical hyperbole” was nonactionable.
The blog in question, clearlakewood.blogspot.com, had referred to Zucker as a “rip off artist,” and an “under the table crook,” who had “shortchanged the taxpayers with millions,” and “cost taxpayers when he took a piece of township land on County Line Road without paying for it,” among a few other similar comments.
The plaintiffs claimed that the statements accused their client of criminal behavior — thus making the suit actionable, but the Superior Court Judge Frank Buczynski Jr. disagreed, saying that, that the statements were unlikely to be interpreted that way.
Nevertheless, the suit raises questions about what to do if the blog insults had in fact been actionable. The Somerset Development had to resort to posting their subpoenas to the comment section of the offending blog entries, and though the defendants argued this was insufficient, Buczynski said it was the only way.
Nevertheless, with this case it didn’t come to ferreting out anonymous bloggers. As the defense’s lawyer, Richard Ravin, said, as reported by New Jersey Law Journal, “I think this case is a good example of the court acting as a gatekeeper to protect against the unconstitutional intrusion on one’s anonymous free speech rights on the internet.”
The prosecutors rued that this left those like their client “effectively defenseless from shadowy attack,” but as the internet is right now, this is both one of its virtues and vices: speech is often de facto beyond the law.