Charles Hickman, the chairman of the Pikeville-Pike County airport board, got upset about some mean things that had been posted anonymously about him on the local Topix site. He filed a defamation suit and sought to compel Topix to disclose the identities of the anonymous posters. The case came to the Kentucky Supreme Court on the issue of what Hickman would have to show an order to compel the disclosure of the anonymous posters' identities. The court established a pretty demanding requirement that Hickman present a prima facie showing that the postings were false, something that required more of him than asserting their falsity. The case is Doe v. Coleman.
The Court was very cognizant of the free speech and public policy issues under the First Amendment that were at stake. Hickman, after all, as a public figure. History tells us that one of the most influential documents of the American Revolutionary period was Thomas Paine's Common Sense, which was initially published anonymously. And so the Court observed:
Without free comment on matters of public concern, totalitarianism can arise. And naturally, when public speech is "free," that speech will contain comments critical of those who seek to govern. Indeed, it is inherent in a democracy that only by exercising one's voice can the individual citizen truly participate in the governance of society. Sometimes, negative things just need to be said.
The Court's opinion was authored by Justice Mary Noble joined by Chief Justice John Minton, Justice Lisabeth Hughes and Justice Michelle Keller; Justice Daniel Venters concurred in result only (he did not see much of anything defamatory and what Hickman complained of); Justice Bill Cunningham dissented and was joined by Justice Samuel Wright.