Legal Protections for Anonymous Speech in Missouri

Note: This page covers information specific to Missouri. For general information concerning legal protections for anonymous speech see the Legal Protections for Anonymous Speech section of this guide.

Missouri law is unclear about exactly what test a court should apply in deciding whether to permit disclosure of an anonymous Internet speaker's identity to name that speaker as a defendant in a John Doe lawsuit. One case, Sedersten v. Taylor, 2009 WL 4802567 (W.D. Mo. Dec. 9, 2009), addressed a situation where a party sought the identity of an online speaker to serve as a witness, rather than as a defendant.

Sedersten v. Taylor, 2009 WL 4802567 (W.D. Mo. Dec. 9, 2009)

In Sedersten, a federal district court in the Western District of Missouri denied John Sedersten’s motion to compel The Springfield News-Leader to divulge the identity of "bornandraisedhere," a pseudonymous commenter who commented on an article on the News-Leader's website. The subpoena issued in conjunction with Sedersten's civil lawsuit against the City of Springfield, Missouri, Springfield's police chief, and a former Springfield police officer. The News-Leader article discussed county prosecutors' decision to drop charges against the police officer, a decision that "bornandraisedhere" sharply criticized.  Gannett Missouri Publishing, the publisher of the News-Leader, objected to the subpoena, and Sedersten moved to compel the newspaper to turn over information.  

The district court briefly reviewed the various standards applied by other courts in anonymous speech cases and determined that “a party seeking disclosure must clear a higher hurdle where the anonymous poster is a non-party.” 2009 Wl 4802567, at *2 (citing  Doe v., 140 F.Supp.2d 1088 (W.D. Was. 2001)). The court adopted the four-part test applied in, which requires the court to consider whether (1) the subpoena was issued in good faith; (2) the information sought relates to a core claim or defense; (3) the identifying information is directly and materially relevant to that claim or defense; and (4) information sufficient to establish or to disprove the claim or defense is unavailable from any other source. Id. The court also explained that it would “keep in mind other First Amendment principles, such as the strict scrutiny applied to restrictions on political speech.” Id.

Applying this test, the court determined that “this is not the exceptional case that warrants disclosure of an anonymous speaker’s identity.” Id. The court found that the evidence Sedersten sought to elicit from bornandraisedhere was cumulative, and that Sedersten could rely on the comments in making out his negligent hiring/retention case against the City without knowing the identity of the speaker. In addition, the court commented that, if bornandraisedhere was in fact the chief of police (a named defendant), then Sedersten could simply question the chief on the comments during a deposition. Id. at *2 n.5.

The court also rejected Sedersten’s argument that bornandraisedhere had waived First Amendment protection by agreeing to the News-Leader’s privacy policy, which reserved to the newspaper "the right to use, and to disclose to third parties, all of the information collected from and about [users] while [using] the Site in any way and for any purpose." Id. at *1, 3. The court was unconvinced by Sedersten’s reliance on “two sentences in a two-page document in which the overarching theme is that information provided by a user of the site may be used for various commercial purposes.” The court further explained that “[n]othing on the face of the privacy policy even hints a user may be waiving his or her constitutional right to anonymous free speech by posting comments or materials on the News-Leader’s website.”  Id. at *3.


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