Feb. 13, 2007

Public Citizen Represents Former New Jersey Town Council Member in Suit Against Internet News Site

NJ.com Breached Contract by Revealing Identity of Anonymous Poster, Suit Says

WASHINGTON, D.C. – An online news site unlawfully revealed the identity of a former New Jersey town official who had posted anonymous comments on its message board, according to a lawsuit filed today by Public Citizen on behalf of the official. When his identity was made known, he was publicly humiliated and forced to resign.

Michael Gallucci, a former town councilman for Teaneck, N.J., posted messages anonymously on a Teaneck area message board on NJ.com, a news site and Internet service provider (ISP) owned by New Jersey On-Line, LLC.  The ISP provides a forum dedicated to many towns within the state where visitors to the Web site can anonymously post comments related to the locality.

From Dec. 16, 2005, to Dec. 21, 2005, Galluci posted on the site criticisms of William J. Brennan, a firefighter who had been employed with the Teaneck Fire Department. Brennan was a regular poster on NJ.com’s Teaneck message board, where he lodged frequent complaints against the Teaneck Council under the name “WJBrennan.” Prior to Dec. 16, Brennan had also been a party to approximately 10 lawsuits involving the township of Teaneck, as well as the Teaneck Council members. 

The ISP unlawfully released Galluci’s identity publicly on the message board after it received a subpoena from Brennan’s lawyer. New Jersey law requires that anonymous Internet users first be given notice before subpoenas seeking their identity can be enforced, so that the speaker can challenge the validity of the subpoena and protect his identity.

The release of his name on the message board led to overwhelming criticism of Galluci, his forced resignation from the Township Council, and public humiliation as the story was picked up by local and major media outlets. Galluci, who grew up in Teaneck and whose social network, including his family and friends, was located in the township, felt forced to leave Teaneck. He quickly sold his home and relocated to another city.

“When a newspaper is asked or even subpoenaed to identify a source of one of its news stories, any paper worth its salt would fight the subpoena before revealing that information,” said Jennifer Soble, a lawyer for Public Citizen who is litigating the case. “When a newspaper invites citizens to comment on its Web site, it owes those citizens the same protections against unreasonable intrusions into their privacy.” 

To view the lawsuit, filed in the Superior Court of New Jersey, click here.

Public Citizen has a record of defending the First Amendment rights of Internet users. To learn more, click here.

###