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Federal Court Should Reject Attempt to Identify California Apartment Critics Who Posted Anonymously on Web Site

Nov. 19, 2008

Federal Court Should Reject Attempt to Identify California Apartment Critics Who Posted Anonymously on Web Site

Revealing Identities of People Who Complained About Their Apartments Could Have Chilling Effect on Internet Free Speech

WASHINGTON, D.C. – An attempt by two landlords to identify two dozen people who posted comments anonymously about the apartment buildings where they live is nothing more than an effort to intimidate critics and should be denied, Public Citizen and the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California said in a federal court brief filed today in California.

Parkmerced Investors Properties and co-plaintiff Stellar Larkspur Partners issued subpoenas  for the identities of the people who posted comments on www.apartmentratings.com, a message board that invites the public to discuss apartment buildings in various locations throughout the United States. The companies claim that the anonymous posters made false and misleading statements about their rental properties, which are in San Francisco and Larkspur, Calif. Complaints ranged from too much construction noise at the apartments to an increase in utility fees.

Public Citizen and the ACLU, which are representing one of the defendants, filed a brief in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, arguing that the First Amendment protects anonymous speech. The plaintiffs also have not offered any evidence to back their claims that the comments were defamatory or posted by a competitor.

“People have a constitutional right to speak anonymously, and allowing corporations to remove that veil without justification would seriously chill the free exchange of ideas and commentary on the Internet,” Public Citizen attorney Paul Alan Levy said. “The courts have consistently ruled that plaintiffs must first prove that they have been damaged before they can seek the identity of people who post anonymously on the Web.”

Public Citizen and the ACLU are asking the court to deny the subpoenas and reject the companies’ lawsuit against the defendant under the state’s anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) statute. The California law was aimed at lawsuits that would prevent people from speaking out about issues of public interest.

“The Courts play an important role in safeguarding free speech on the Internet by ensuring that the subpoena process is not used improperly to reveal the identity of anonymous speakers,” said ACLU-NC staff attorney Ann Brick. “No one should lose the right to speak anonymously without prior court review.”