July 13, 2000
Internet Critics of New Jersey Company Should Remain Anonymous, Public Citizen Tells Court
Identities of People Who Posted Anonymous Messages on the Internet
Should Not Be Disclosed
WASHINGTON, D.C. — 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, Public Citizen said in a brief filed this week.
Public Citizen filed the amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief in a New Jersey case in which Dendrite International, a supplier of sales force software products and support services to the pharmaceutical industry, sued four anonymous people who posted messages about the company on a Yahoo! message board. Dendrite is alleging that three of the message posters made false statements, that two of them who identified themselves as employees violated employment agreements, and that three of them published secret information.
Public Citizen contends that the court should not order Yahoo! to disclose their identities unless Dendrite provides direct proof to support the allegations.
“This lawsuit is a blatant attempt to intimidate all of Dendrite?s employees,” said Paul Levy of Public Citizen Litigation Group,?which filed the brief. “The company is in effect warning workers 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. That?s 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 disclosure of the identities of people who post messages anonymously,” Levy said. “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.”
In this case, Dendrite is a public figure for the purposes of the First Amendment, Levy argued. Public figures must meet higher standards to prove they have been defamed. Levy also noted that Yahoo! reminds users that the message boards are not connected with the company, and that messages are only the opinions of the posters.
Dendrite is suing over a wide range of statements. One person, for instance, posted a message complaining about pressure from management to produce, while another said that employees were leaving Dendrite in droves. Some of the statements were too vague to be deemed capable of being defamatory, Levy said. Others should not be subject to such a lawsuit because they are pure opinion.
“Some of the statements at issue in this case, especially the statements that workers are not treated very nicely by management, are hardly the stuff over which the typical libel suit is filed,” Levy said. The sole reason to sue, Levy said, is to find out who posted the messages and possibly subject them to retribution.
Public Citizen argued in its brief that, because the main purpose of such suits is often to unmask the company?s 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.
Public Citizen filed the brief because it champions free speech rights. The organization is currently representing a person who posted anonymous messages on a Yahoo! message board about Thomas & Betts Corporation, a Tennessee manufacturer of electrical components. In that case, too, the company has gone to court to compel Yahoo! to reveal the person?s identity, as well as the identities of other message posters. The company contends that they made statements that were defamatory or contained proprietary information to drive down the company?s stock price.