Free Speech Wins Appeals Court Victory
ACLU Hails First Appeals Court Decision Protecting Anonymous Internet Critics
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has won a major protection of individuals' freedom of speech in spite of corporate attempts to crush it.
A state appeals court rejected a company's attempt to discover the identities of anonymous Internet message posters. The case marks the first time any appeals court in the nation has considered this question.
The court issued the ruling in a case in which Dendrite International, a supplier of sales force software products and support services to the pharmaceutical industry, sued four people who posted messages anonymously about the company on a Yahoo! message board.
In an opinion issued by a three-judge panel of a New Jersey appeals court, Judge Robert Fall ruled that the company failed to meet the stringent legal standards required for it to obtain subpoenas for the disclosure of the identities of people who post Web messages about those companies.
“Several other courts have articulated similar standards for deciding whether to compel the identification of anonymous Internet speakers, but this decision marks the first time that any appeals court has considered such a request for identification," said Paul Levy, who filed a brief for Public Citizen as a friend of the court.
“Because this ruling sets forth strict procedural and evidentiary standards for compelled identification, and then shows that these standards can produce real protection for anonymity, this decision is a tremendous victory for free speech,” he added.
Levy predicted that for this reason, as well as the court's thorough analysis of constitutional rights involved, the decision is likely to be especially influential in future cases. Yahoo! recently told a judge in another case that it has received “thousands” of subpoenas like Dendrite's in similar attempts to destroy free speech.
Dendrite alleged that three of the message posters made false statements, that two of them who identified themselves as employees violated employment agreements, and that three of them published secret information.
After Dendrite asked the court to authorize it to pursue discovery to identify the defendants, Superior Court Judge Kenneth MacKenzie ordered Dendrite to post a notice of its request on the Yahoo! message board to alert the potential defendants that their anonymity was at issue. Two of the posters hired lawyers to defend their right to remain anonymous.
Once Judge MacKenzie ruled in favor of the two posters, Dendrite appealed the denial of its request to identify one of the posters.
In response, the court has accepted the argument that the law must "strike a balance between the well-established First Amendment right to speak anonymously, and the right of the plaintiff to protect its proprietary interests and reputation [against] actionable conduct of anonymous, fictionally named defendants."
To achieve this balance, Judge Fall adopted a four-part test to ensure that the right to speak anonymously can be lost only if the plaintiff can show that it had a valid case against the speakers that could not be pursued without identifying the speakers.
Under this standard, the court should require the plaintiff to attempt to notify the anonymous posters that their identities are being sought, and give the defendants an opportunity to oppose the request. The plaintiff must identify the exact statements alleged to be unlawful.
The court must then decide both whether the complaint states a valid claim for relief, and whether the plaintiff has enough evidence to support its claim. Finally, if these first three standards are met, "the court must balance the defendant's First Amendment right of anonymous free speech against the strength of the prima facie case and the necessity for the disclosure of the anonymous defendant's identity to allow the plaintiff to proceed."
The court upheld Judge MacKenzie's ruling that Dendrite had not met this standard, because there was no proof that the messages had caused its stock price to fall, or had otherwise caused it harm.
A company should not be able to deny members of the public the right to speak anonymously simply by filing a complaint and making vague allegations of wrongdoing.
In November 2000, in a case brought by the ACLU, a Pennsylvania state court established new protections for anonymous online authors, saying that public officials and others cannot use frivolous defamation lawsuits to ferret out the identity of their critics. And in several other recent cases, the ACLU has come to the defense of anonymous speakers who face legal intimidation from those they criticize in cyberspace.
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