On December 28th, 2011, Bill Hadley read the comments. It was a simple article in the Freeport Journal Standard, detailing Hadley's run for a newly vacant seat on the county board. But the commenters were less polite. "Hadley is a Sandusky waiting to be exposed," a commenter called Fuboy had written. "Check out the view he has of Empire [elementary school] from his front door."
It was a rude but not unusual comment, in line with the ad hominem hostility often found in comments sections. But for Hadley, this comment crossed the line, and he set out to find the person behind it. His quest to unmask Fuboy set off a four-year legal saga that would send shock waves through Freeport's legal and political community.
"Hadley is a Sandusky waiting to be exposed."
At the time, Hadley was returning to county politics after three years in private practice. A lifelong Republican, he had served on the Stephenson County Board from 2002 to 2008. When a board member resigned in 2011 after getting caught living outside the county, Hadley decided to make a play for the now-open seat. He was particularly critical of a recent bond that had borrowed $5.5 million to finance an industrial park called Mill Race Crossing. "Just watching some of the County Board meetings made my blood pressure rise," he told The Journal Standard in the article that inspired Fuboy's comment. "We’re pushing the debt off way down the road to our children and grandchildren. This is not being fiscally responsible."
No one seems to have taken Fuboy's allegation seriously, but locals were eager to find out who was behind it. A small town in northwestern Illinois, Freeport has a lively political tradition, and many saw the comment as a sign that local political divisions were coming to a head. One anonymous blog, which had been exceptionally critical of the Mill Race deal, suspected the deal's biggest proponent, County Board chairman John Blum. (The blog — titled The Blumdoggle — is largely devoted to attacking Blum himself.) In a post titled, "John Blum, the woman beater," the site argued the comment was an extension of Blum's ongoing feud with Hadley. "John Blum, using an effective whisper campaign against Hadley, worked hard to have his yes man, Pete Willging, elected over Hadley four years ago," The Blumdoggle wrote. "Clearly, the person or persons that are working to libel Bill Hadley are John Blum supporters."
Another suspect was then-Freeport mayor George Gaulrapp, who had worked closely with Blum — but commenters at Blumdoggle were skeptical. "If it were Gaulrapp or Blum, the paper would give them the name and number of the person making the comment," one wrote.
"I am out to find who said this about me."
Hadley, however, took matters into his own hands. After the new year, Hadley filed a defamation complaint against "Subscriber Doe a/k/a Fuboy," demanding a minimum of $50,000 in damages. "Here's the whole thing. I'm not out to destroy someone," he said in an interview with a local paper. "I am out to find who said this about me." Notably, the complaint specifies that Fuboy is "an adult resident of Stephenson County, Illinois." Who else would know Hadley lived across from the local school? But that still left 37,000 possible suspects.
Winnowing down that list would be a massive undertaking. The Journal Standard had a record of its commenters' IP addresses, but the paper wouldn't give out the information without a court order. Getting that order took several months, but in March of 2012, Fuboy's IP address was handed over. Hadley saw it belonged to Comcast's network, which meant another motion demanding the name and billing address associated with the account, one that ended up being appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court. In each case, the argument was the same: there was reason to believe the Sandusky comment constituted defamation, and the commenter's identity was necessary to bring him or her to trial.
Hadley's quest was a more complicated version of a process that's used to unmask anonymous bloggers all the time. If a service provider like Comcast can be legally compelled to give up a user's registration information, then formerly anonymous websites can be brought to court under real names, a process that's played out at various levels across the world. Most recently, Microsoft drew criticism for revealing the name of a dissident blogger in Thailand after being ordered to do so by local courts.
In Hadley's case, Fuboy was a commenter on a third-party site, adding another step to the process. Before going to the service provider, he had to get a court order from the host site itself. That extra step (and the accompanying time and legal expense) is usually enough to deter plaintiffs, but they're increasingly willing to take the leap. Similar defamation suits have looked to unmask Reddit users and Twitter accounts, including one suit in which the actor James Woods sued an anonymous Twitter account for claiming he was addicted to cocaine. None of those lawsuits have ended in clear wins, but they routinely result in settlements or lengthy, expensive trials.
After $35,000 in legal fees, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled for Hadley
But despite the trend, most comments sections operate under an assumption of soft anonymity. Olivera Medenica, a lawyer specializing in defamation cases, says part of the reason is the uncertain nature of defamation law. "It is the type of case where it is difficult to predict how a court will rule because it requires such a judgment call from the bench," Medenica says. Even if the court rules in your favor, deep-pocketed companies like Reddit, Twitter, or even The Journal Standard are exempted from damages by Safe Harbor statutes. In most cases, all plaintiffs get is the person who made the comment in the first place.
But that’s what Hadley wanted, and this summer, he got it. After $35,000 in legal fees, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled Comcast had to give up its subscriber's info and the name was finally made public. It was Frank Cook, a state attorney for Stephenson County who had served on the county board with Hadley during his first six-year term. But while Hadley knew Cook, he seemed bewildered that this vague acquaintance could have had such strong feelings about him. "I know him on the street to say hello to him," he told a local paper after the ruling came down. (Reached by The Verge, Hadley’s lawyer declined to make him available for comment.)
The following day, Cook resigned his position, citing the ongoing case, but he has maintained his innocence in public statements. The trial had to change venue, moving 20 miles southeast to Ogle County. After Cook was unmasked, it became clear that avoiding conflicts of interest in Stevenson County would be impossible. The first hearing in the new venue is scheduled for the first of December.
According to Medenica, Hadley has a strong case, but there are real doubts about whether the law will side with him. "Hadley is a Sandusky" is an assertion of fact and an obviously damaging one, but quantifying any reputational damage may be harder than it sounds. "Hadley will need to demonstrate damages attributable to that statement — not an easy task," Medenica says.
In the meantime, the article is still available on JournalStandard.com, but the comment is now missing. The comment section is closed.