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Internet Critic of Jefferson County Politician Has Right to Anonymity, Court Rules

Jan. 7, 2005

Internet Critic of Jefferson  County Politician Has Right to Anonymity, Court Rules

Former Commissioner Lost Re-election After Resident Sent E-mails About Wasted Tax Money

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A person who sent e-mails criticizing a Texas politician for helping to cause a budget deficit and make wasteful expenditures has a right to remain anonymous, a judge ruled today. The Internet critic, known only as recall_carl01, sent a series of e-mails in February and March 2004 identifying wasteful expenditures and urging fellow citizens to keep those in mind when voting.

Former Jefferson County Commissioner Jimmy Cokinos, who lost his re-election bid in March, filed a petition in June in the District Court of Jefferson County. He claimed that several of the e-mails were defamatory and demanded that the court order recall_carl01 to be identified.

Public Citizen, which has been a strong defender of First Amendment rights on the Internet, urged the court to allow recall_carl01 to remain anonymous. By seeking re-election, Cokinos voluntarily made his conduct a fair subject for comment, argued Paul Alan Levy, a Public Citizen attorney representing recall_carl01. Further, courts have ruled that subpoenas to reveal the names of anonymous speakers can chill free speech, and those courts have upheld the right to communicate anonymously over the Internet.

Today, District Court Judge Gary Sanderson agreed, ruling that a subpoena that would identify recall_carl01 should be quashed.

“The e-mails at issue here contained standard criticism of the use of taxpayer money – not defamatory statements – and it was well within recall_carl01’s right to make the comments,” Levy said. “We are very gratified that the judge agreed that this Internet critic has a First Amendment right to speak anonymously on the Internet.”

Richard Aman of Houston, Texas and staff counsel of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas served as local counsel.