Dec. 5, 2018

Blogger Critical of Prince William County School Board Chair Has Right to Anonymity Online, Public Citizen Tells Virginia Court

First Amendment Gives Internet Users the Right to Privacy Online

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The defendant in a Virginia defamation lawsuit has no legal justification to curtail First Amendment rights by seeking out the identity of an anonymous blogger who operates an online political forum on Prince William County politics, Public Citizen told a court in a motion on Tuesday.

Public Citizen this week, filed a motion in the Prince William County Virginia Circuit Court to quash a subpoena to reveal the identity of a political blogger involved in the case, Bishop v. Morgan, Sawyers and Wilk. The dispute revolves around a conflict between former Prince William County Patriot High School Principal Michael Bishop and former Prince William County School Board Chair Ryan Sawyers. The subpoena is an attempt by defense lawyers to reveal the identity of a political blogger who operates the blog Sheriff of Nottingham PWC. The blog took Bishop’s side in the controversy, arguing that the efforts to get him fired from his position as principal of a local high school were wrongheaded and possibly illegal. Nottingham also criticized Sawyers on other occasions.

Public Citizen seeks to block Sawyers’ effort to uncover the identity of Sheriff of Nottingham’s blogger. Co-defendants Sawyers, Guy Morgan and Justin Wilk state that they need to know the blogger’s identity to depose the writer about Bishop’s employment and reputation, even though Sawyers admits that Sheriff of Nottingham’s online opinions have not defamed or injured him.

“The First Amendment protects the right to speak anonymously,” said Paul Levy, the Public Citizen attorney who filed the motion. “States must always begin with the well-established proposition that the First Amendment protects our rights to speak anonymously and that court orders are government actions that must comply with the First Amendment’s parameters.”

In its motion, Public Citizen argues that the parties to the case have no legal basis for discovering the identities of those who operate political forums like Sheriff of Nottingham. In addition, the First Amendment protection for anonymous speech restricts subpoenas sought solely to identify anonymous bloggers. The Sheriff of Nottingham is not accused of wrongdoing in this case, and therefore, its owner enjoys even stronger protections against having their anonymity taken away.

In a prior case, Jaynes v. Commonwealth, the Virginia Supreme Court firmly endorsed the First Amendment protection for anonymous speech, particularly in the sphere of political speech.

Co-counsel for Sheriff are Mark Bailen and Ben Irwin of Baker and Hostetler’s Washington, D.C., office.

A hearing in the case is set for Jan. 11.

Learn more about the case here.

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