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July 6, 2015

In Precedent-Setting Case, Washington State Appellate Court Agrees That Florida Divorce Lawyer Should Not Be Permitted to Unmask Online Critic

Dispute Over Avvo Review Marks First Time a Washington State Appellate Court Decided What Protections to Give Anonymous Online Reviewers

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In a precedent-setting case argued by Public Citizen, the Washington state Court of Appeals has determined [PDF] that anonymous online reviewers are entitled to basic First Amendment protections.

In the case, the court denied a Florida divorce lawyer’s attempt to learn the identity of former client who wrote about her on Avvo, a Seattle-based website designed to allow users to find and rate lawyers. Public Citizen urged the court to adopt a strong standard used around the country to ensure that anonymous online critics retain their First Amendment right to post negative reviews online. The court agreed with Public Citizen and adopted most of the test that the organization advocated.

“The court has protected consumers’ ability to read criticism of businesses as well as the positive comments that are never the subject of defamation claims,” said Paul Alan Levy, the Public Citizen attorney who represented Jane Doe on appeal. “By requiring proof that the criticism is false, the Washington Court of Appeals has reassured consumers that their First Amendment right to speak anonymously cannot lightly be flouted.”

The case stems from a series of reviews that appeared on Yelp, Google and Avvo in September 2013 saying that Tampa attorney Deborah Thomson had done a poor job of handling a divorce. Thomson filed suit against the critics on May 21, 2014, in Hillsborough County, Fla., alleging defamation.

Thomson then went to court in Washington state to seek a subpoena to learn the identity of the critic who had posted on Avvo. Although 12 states and the District of Columbia, as well as many federal courts, have adopted standards that provide strong First Amendment protections to anonymous online reviewers, before this case, state courts in Washington had not yet set a standard. Thomson did not seek a subpoena in California, where Yelp and Google are based, and a state that has a strong protective standard.

A Washington trial court earlier rejected Thomson’s request for a subpoena, and she appealed. In its brief on behalf of Doe, Public Citizen urged the appellate court to require people who seek to identify online critics to provide proof that the criticisms are false and defamatory. Public Citizen’s work on other cases throughout the country helped create the standard for which we advocated.

Read the opinion [PDF]. Learn more about the case.

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