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X writes a malicious statement about Y on the internet, for instance accuses Y of a crime. Real name of Y isn't known at this moment of time, but it becomes known later. Does this still qualify as libel?

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  • You can get a better, more specific answer if you indicate the specific jurisdiction to be considered. That would be a country, and if it is a federal country such as Canada, the US, or India, the province or state. Laws vary on such mattres. Commented Jan 23, 2022 at 18:42
  • @DavidSiegel ok. But this is a hypothetical question, so no precise details about the state.
    – user855286
    Commented Jan 23, 2022 at 18:58
  • I understand. But if you choose to limit your hypothetical to a single jurisdiction or a small group of jurisdictions, you may be able to get a more detailed and specific answer. That is up to you. Commented Jan 23, 2022 at 19:25
  • Also it would help if you gave more information about what you mean by "Real name of Y isn't known at this moment of time, but it becomes known later" Could you give an example scenario to help illustrate such a case, please? Commented Jan 23, 2022 at 20:06
  • @DavidSiegel you don't know my real name at this moment of time, but it may be revealed to the public later. Doxxing, or accidental leak of information, or something else.
    – user855286
    Commented Jan 23, 2022 at 20:10

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Laws on libel vary by jurisdiction. However, in general a defamatory statement that can be identified as being about a particular person can be held to be defamatory. The person need not be named specifically if the person is clearly identifiable.

Note that there are several other requirements not mentioned in the question. The statement must cause actual harm to reputation, unless it is one of the limited category of statements that are "libel per se" This will often include an accusation of serious crime. In many jurisdictions the statement must in fact be false. At least in the US, the statement must be a statement of purported fact, not an opinion.

On the other hand, if a false statement is made that in fact harms reputation, it is not usually essential to prove that it was malicious. However, in some jurisdictions malice must be proven to obtain punitive damages.

If the person making the statement does not know who it is about, it may not be libel in some jurisdictions. For example if someone wrote:

Whoever started the wildfire last week was guilty of arson and murder.

and a month later the person who started the fire was discovered, that probably would not constitute defamation.

The classic common-law rule is that a statement must be "of and concerning" the plaintiff to allow the plaintiff to sue and win in a libel case. But what kind of proof will be accepted for this element varies.

If the alleged defamer (X in the question) knows the subject only by a pseudonym, such as a pen name or an online username, and uses that pseudonym in a defamatory statement, and it is possible to establish a clear connection between the pseudonym and Y, then that statement will be just as defamatory as if X had used Y's legal name.

In the classic case of New York Times v Sullivan the Times advertisement at issue said that "the police" did certain things and that "Southern violators of the constitution" did certain other things. Sullivan was the city commissioner in Montgomery Alabama generally charged with supervision of the police, and he claimed in his suit that all these statements were "of and concerning" him, since the police could not have done them without his approval, and that by "Southern violators" the ad meant the police.

The Alabama court accepted these claims. The libel judgement was overturned, largely on other grounds. But the US Supreme Court wrote:

We also think the evidence was constitutionally defective in another respect: it was incapable of supporting the jury's finding that the allegedly libelous statements were made 'of and concerning' respondent."

(Thanks to Nate Eldredge for reminding me that the US Supreme Court addressed this issue in this case.)

See Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment by Anthony Lewis for a detailed account of the case, including the Alabama court proceedings and the full text of the original ad.

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  • The "of or concerning" issue actually was mentioned by SCOTUS as one of their many reasons for overturning the Alabama court decision in Sullivan. Near the end of the majority opinion: "We also think the evidence was constitutionally defective in another respect: it was incapable of supporting the jury's finding that the allegedly libelous statements were made 'of and concerning' respondent." Commented Jan 24, 2022 at 3:17
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    The Alabama courts' rulings were so full of laughable defects and obvious bias that, reading between the lines, you can tell that SCOTUS couldn't keep track of them all, and eventually just gave up. So yeah, it would be easy to overlook that this is one they did happen to address. Commented Jan 24, 2022 at 3:23
  • @Nate Eldredge I have addressed that issue. Can you think of a less laughable libel case where the "of and Concerning" element was seriously contested? Citing such a case would be a good addition to this answer. Commented Jan 24, 2022 at 3:30
  • I agree, but I don't have one off the top of my head. I'll let you know if I think of any. Commented Jan 24, 2022 at 4:19
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    One of the most absurd parts of the Sullivan case was somewhat related. The ad had a line saying something like "They have bombed the house of Dr. King", i.e. Martin Luther King Jr., whose house had indeed been bombed. The Alabama court ruled that the generic pronoun "they" could be a reference to Commissioner Sullivan! Therefore, if the defendants wanted to claim the defense of truth (basically the only defense available to them), they would have had to prove that Sullivan personally bombed Dr. King's house. Which of course was impossible, because he didn't do it. Commented Jan 24, 2022 at 4:25

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