Internet Critics of Arizona Couple Have Right to Anonymity, Public Citizen Tells Court

Aug. 10, 2005

Internet Critics of Arizona Couple
Have Right to Anonymity, Public Citizen Tells Court

Chat Room Posters Made Disparaging Comments About Couple

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Several users of an Internet chat room who posted derogatory remarks about an Arizona couple have a right to remain anonymous, Public Citizen told the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York today in a “friend of the court” brief.

The Internet critics, known in court documents as Does 1-15, participated in chat room discussions of wedding matters and photographs, but in many cases, the discussions became nasty and personal. Naji Alkateeb and Deanna Wilson-Alkateeb participated in some of these discussions and were offended by the personal attacks that ensued. The Alkateebs alleged that Does 1-15 defamed them by making false statements, invaded their privacy by making nasty and distorted statements, and inflicted emotional distress on them.

On May 13, 2005, the Alkateebs sued 15 Does without identifying the pseudonyms they had used or specifying the unlawful statements made by each. Without notice to the posters, the Alkateebs requested permission to subpoena identifying information about specific user names, and the court agreed. Three anonymous defendants have moved to quash the subpoenas. In today’s brief, Public Citizen urged the court to deny enforcement of any part of the subpoena unless the Alkateebs could make a stronger showing of wrongdoing.

Public Citizen, which has been a strong defender of First Amendment rights on the Internet, told the court that Internet chat rooms provide individuals the opportunity to immediately respond to postings they believe are false or misleading at no cost. Further, courts have ruled that subpoenas seeking the names of anonymous speakers can chill free speech, and those courts have upheld the right to communicate anonymously over the Internet unless the plaintiffs produce evidence to support the claim that they have been wronged, argued Paul Alan Levy, a Public Citizen attorney. The brief urges the court to embrace the analysis of anonymity issues that has been followed by courts in neighboring states.

“This is the sort of speech against which we caution our children,” the brief states, “but that does not mean that every hurtful thing that may be said on the playground is a basis for a lawsuit.”

Daniel Clifton, with the law firm of Lewis, Clifton & Nikolaidis of New Yorkjoined the friend of the court brief, available by clicking here.