Legal Protections for Anonymous Speech in Wisconsin

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

The one relevant Wisconsin case, Lassa v. Rongstad, 718 N.W.2d 673 (Wis. 2006), did not consider an Internet-based claim. However, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin's adoption of a "motion to dismiss" standard may be applicable to future Internet anonymity cases. Overall, this test places a higher burden on plaintiffs than do most other "motion to dismiss" standards, owing to special features of Wisconsin law, but it is not as protective of anonymity as tests that require the plaintiffs to put forward evidence, such as the "summary judgment" test used in Doe v. Cahill, 884 A.2d 451 (Del. 2005).

Lassa v. Rongstad, 718 N.W.2d 673 (Wis. 2006)

Todd Rongstad was the president of Alliance for Working Wisconsin (AWW), a political organization. The organization sent out a mailing that accused Julie Lassa, a state representative, of various kinds of wrongdoing. Lassa sued Rongstad, AWW, Rongstad's company, and five anonymous defendants for their involvement in the mailing, which she claimed was defamatory. After several motions regarding whether Rongstad would be compelled to disclose the anonymous defendants' identities, the parties settled. However, the court had already imposed discovery sanctions on Rongstad for not giving up the names. Rongstad appealed to the Supreme Court of Wisconsin, arguing that the sanctions were illegal because they were applied over his assertion of a constitutional privilege. The appeal required the court to consider standards for compelling disclosure of an anonymous defendant's identity.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court adopted a "motion to dismiss" standard as the test for compelling disclosure of an anonymous defendant's identity. Like "motion to dismiss" standards generally, this is a test the plaintiff can satisfy by stating a claim in its pleadings, without having to put forth evidence. The court noted with approval the summary judgment standard applied by the Supreme Court of Delaware adopted in Doe v. Cahill, 884 A.2d 451 (Del. 2005), but found that a motion to dismiss standard would provide the necessary protection for anonymous speakers under Wisconsin law. It reasoned that Wisconsin law -- apparently unlike Delaware law -- requires a plaintiff to plead the defamatory statements with particularity, and it requires the court to determine whether the pleaded statements are "capable of a defamatory meaning" at the motion to dismiss stage. (Note that lack of defamatory meaning was the basis the Cahill court invoked for quashing the subpoena and dismissing the case.) Despite this reasoning, it appears that the Wisconsin standard is significantly less protective of anonymous speech than the Cahill test.


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