The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

Not Libel to Defame a Pseudonymous Chat Group User …

so long as the user's true identity is unknown to the audience, and the pseudonym has no "legally cognizable independent reputation" (as when the pseudonym is used by an author to sell books).


From Li v. Zeng, decided today by the Massachusetts Appeals Court:

As [Li's] complaint acknowledges, she participated in the chat group through a pseudonym. Li does not allege that anyone in the chat group other than Zeng knew that zeber, the target of Zeng's comments, was Li…. Because Li has not pleaded facts plausibly suggesting that Zeng made a statement "of and concerning her," her complaint fails to include a necessary element of a defamation action…. [Li failed] to plead a plausible case that her own reputation in the community was diminished by Zeng's statements about zeber….

[T]here may be situations where someone known by a pseudonym can bring a defamation action on behalf of the pseudonym. See Alexander vs. Falk (D. Nev. Aug. 30, 2017) (allowing defamation action by romance author and model to proceed through use of plaintiffs' professional pseudonyms). In such a case, the plaintiff would be seeking damages for harm done to the pseudonym's independent reputation in the community.

This, however, is not one of those situations. Nothing in Li's complaint suggests that zeber had a legally cognizable independent reputation or that Li sued to protect such a reputation. Instead, Li brought her case in her  own right based on the alleged harm caused to her own reputation.

Thanks to the Media Law Resource Center MediaLawDaily for the pointer.