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Internet Free Speech Trumps Vainglorious Bid To Unmask Anonymous Critic in Country Club Spat

Jan. 17, 2008

Internet Free Speech Trumps Vainglorious Bid To Unmask Anonymous Critic in Country Club Spat

Numerous Legal Precedents Apparently No Deterrent to Wounded Ego

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A blogger’s First Amendment right to anonymously criticize the wealthy owner of a California country club on the Web was reaffirmed by a Texas court earlier this month as a result of a joint brief filed by Public Citizen and the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Texas (ACLU).

The friend-of-the-court brief involved the John Doe defendant’s blog, “Del Mar Country Club Sucks,” which was highly critical of the new club owner’s recent policy changes that made the tony club more available to non-members. The slighted club owner had petitioned the court to expose not just the identity of the blogger but of everyone who commented on the site dmccsucks.blogspot.com, hosted by Google. The blog has since been taken down. The club owner, identified only as MP, filed the petition in the 160th District Court in Dallas in an ironic attempt to remain anonymous while trying to deny anonymity to the critic.

Petition of MP alleged that the postings about her were derogatory and defamatory, although nothing in her petition showed that the comments were false or caused any damages – a requirement to prove defamation. Numerous free speech cases over the past decade have resulted in rulings that protect the anonymous expression of public opinion on the Internet. That protection does not apply when free speech is abused but, in this case, Public Citizen and the ACLU contended that MP never presented any evidence of a legitimate grievance.

In an initial ruling, District Judge Jim Jordan gave the club owner an opportunity to support her claims with admissible evidence. When the club owner filed a new petition but did not provide an affidavit proving her case, the judge rejected her subpoena to identify the anonymous blogger and commenters.

“Allegations of defamatory comments were not supported by evidence,” said Public Citizen attorney Paul Alan Levy, who specializes in Internet free speech issues. The court agreed with him and tossed out the motion on Jan. 4.

Co-counsel David Broiles of the ACLU in Texas said, “Several courts have specifically upheld the right to communicate anonymously over the Internet in recognition of the serious chilling effect the revelation of anonymous speakers can have on First Amendment interests.”

READ the brief and the court’s order quashing the subpoena.