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Groups Defend Internet Authors Right to Remain Anonymous

Oct. 17, 2000

Groups Defend Internet Authors Right to Remain Anonymous

Public Citizen and Electronic Frontier Foundation Challenge Corporate Lawyers Effort to Silence Online Critic

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Companies should not be able to use lawsuits to determine the identities of people who anonymously post messages on the Internet, two advocacy organizations said in a brief filed recently.

To best protect freedom of speech on the Internet, companies should be required to meet stringent legal standards before courts order the disclosure of the identities of people who post Web messages about those companies, the consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen and the civil liberties group Electronic Frontier Foundation (“EFF”) said.

The brief was filed Friday in U.S. District Court, the Eastern District of Virginia, on behalf of an individual, Jane Doe, who posted several comments on a Yahoo! message board devoted to AK Steel (formerly Armco Steel), a company based in Middletown, Ohio. Among these messages were statements that John Hritz, executive vice president and general counsel of AK Steel, was too litigious. Hritz promptly filed a petition alleging that “John and/or Jane Doe” had made “threatening, libelous and disparaging” comments on the Internet. (Ohio law allows Hritz to file a petition for discovery even though he has not yet filed a lawsuit against Doe.) Hritz then used that petition to issue subpoenas to Yahoo! and AOL to identify Doe.

“This lawsuit is a blatant attempt to intimidate all of AK Steels employees and other members of the public,” said Paul Levy of Public Citizen Litigation Group, who will argue the case on behalf of Doe. “Hritz is in effect warning workers and others not to exercise their First Amendment right to speak freely about the company on the Internet.”

The Internet, Levy argued, is “the modern equivalent of the Speakers Corner at Hyde Park, the British venue where anybody can stand up and voice their opinions — however silly, profane or brilliant they might seem — to anyone who chooses to listen. It would be disturbing if courts were to permit the routine disclosure of the identities of people who post messages anonymously. The First Amendment guarantees people a right to speak out and participate in public debates. A message board is just that — an ongoing public debate.”

The only Web posting about himself that Hritz cited in his request for discovery was “Hritz will litigate the time of day. OOPS I will be in court.” As Doe explains in her brief, not only is this statement purely opinion, and hence not actionable as libel, but the filing of this case against Doe seems to substantiate Does criticism of Hritz.

Public Citizen and EFF got involved in the matter because of the free speech implications and to combat the growing problem of powerful entities increasingly turning to their lawyers when they find something online they dont like. Lauren Gelman, EFFs director of public policy, explained, “This is just one more example where the legal system is being misused to chill Internet conduct. Lawyers are churning out subpoenas with the sole purpose of intimidating individuals into self-censoring speech. That’s especially clear here where Hritz hasn’t even filed a lawsuit.”

Doe argues in her brief that because the main purpose of such suits is often to unmask a companys critics, the identification of those critics should be treated as a major form of relief that cannot be awarded without proof of wrongdoing. A company should not be able to deny members of the public the right to speak anonymously simply by filing a complaint and making vague allegations of wrongdoing.

“Given the complete lack of evidence that Hritz was libeled, his use of the court as his own private detective agency constitutes a blatant disregard for the Supreme Courts ruling that the First Amendment protects Jane Does right to speak anonymously,” Gelman said. “This is unacceptable behavior, especially from a lawyer for a major corporation.”

Robert Corn-Revere and Ronald Wiltsie of the Washington, D.C.-based law firm of Hogan and Hartson, and Timothy Connors and Mark Belleville of the Ohio-based law firm of Calfee, Halter & Griswold, also are representing Doe as local counsel in the Virginia and Ohio courts, respectively.

Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization founded by Ralph Nader, has been involved in several similar cases. It recently represented an employee in a similar case involving an employee of Thomas & Betts Corporation (T&B), a Tennessee electrical manufacturer. Public Citizen intervened to protect the employee as well as the identities of other message posters. T&B dismissed the suit. The EFF (http://www.eff.org) is the leading civil liberties organization working to protect rights in the digital world. EFF was a plaintiff in ACLU v. Reno, the landmark case in which the Supreme Court ruled that the Internet is a constitutionally protected medium.