Jan. 19, 2007

Public Citizen Wins Motion to Protect Identity of Anonymous Web Site Operator

Massachusetts Real Estate Developer Cannot Unmask Online Critic in Arizona Court

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In an affirmation of First Amendment rights on the Internet, the Superior Court of Arizona in Maricopa County ruled on Thursday against a Massachusetts real estate developer’s attempt to obtain the identity of the operator of a critical Web site after a similar lawsuit had already been dismissed in another state.

The court held that prior to allowing plaintiffs to discover the identity of online critics, they must first show that their interest outweighs the speakers’ constitutional right to anonymous speech. It joined a growing national consensus in holding that a plaintiff must present evidence of wrongdoing before a speaker’s First Amendment right to anonymity can be violated.

The case, filed in the Superior Court of Arizona in Maricopa County, was the second attempt by plaintiff Paul McMann to obtain a subpoena to learn the identity of defendant John Doe, an anonymous Web critic who maintains a site about McMann at http://www.paulmcmann.com/. Doe created the site after a negative business transaction with McMann and invited others to share similar experiences by posting on a message board. The site includes a warning about doing business with McMann and a list of businesses registered in his name.

Seeking to unveil Doe’s identity, McMann sent a subpoena to GoDaddy and Domains by Proxy, the companies responsible for registering and hosting the Web site. The U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts in October 2006 dismissed McMann’s first attempt to learn Doe’s identity, finding that he did not have any legitimate claim for defamation, invasion of privacy or copyright infringement. The Arizona court issued a similar ruling, quashing the subpoena to GoDaddy and dismissing the case.

“This victory is a win for the First Amendment right of free speech on the Internet,” said Greg Beck, an attorney for Public Citizen, which defended Doe. “The court correctly recognized that people’s right to speak anonymously online should not be violated without good cause.”

Phoenix attorney Louis Hoffman of Hoffman & Zur was local counsel for Doe.

To read the court’s decision, click here.

To learn more about the case and read Public Citizen’s motion, click here.

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

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