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Kansas Company Backs Away From Attempt to Gain Identities of Online Critics

Jan. 7, 2003

Kansas Company Backs Away From Attempt to Gain Identities of Online Critics

Home Security Firm Will Not Pursue Case Meant to Curtail Internet Users’ Anonymous Speech Rights

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A Kansas company has backed away from its request to discover the identities of 11 Internet users who anonymously posted criticisms of the company on a Yahoo! message board. The company filed the request in November 2002 in the 162nd Judicial District Court of Dallas County, Texas, but dropped it late yesterday, soon after Public Citizen notified the company that it would be representing one of the posters.

Alluding to defamatory comments, Protection One, a national home security provider based in Topeka, Kan., went to court seeking documents that would reveal the identities of posters who had used the message board to criticize the business operations of Protection One and its parent company, Westar, a Kansas utility company. However, the company did not provide any evidence that the statements were false or actionable, nor did it explain why a Texas court should have jurisdiction over the case. Public Citizen’s client, a former Westar employee, had speculated about whether insider trading was responsible for sharp swings in stock prices, discussed shortcomings in the management of Westar and Protection One, argued that the managers were overpaid and identified specific possible replacements for current management.

“Courts recognize that online speakers have a vital First Amendment right to anonymous speech unless there is good reason to believe the speech is harmful, and it is highly unlikely that the court would have infringed on that right based on Protection One’s weak arguments,” said Paul Alan Levy, an attorney with the Public Citizen Litigation Group, who represented one of the anonymous users. “Corporations need to learn that they cannot expect to identify their online critics simply for the price of filing a complaint. They can enforce subpoenas only if they are prepared to go forward with a libel suit. Obviously, Protection One was not ready for that.”

Steven Baughman Jensen of the Dallas firm of Baron and Budd was local counsel in the case. Public Citizen was involved in the case because it has a history of defending free speech on the Internet.

Read Public Citizen’s brief by clicking here

To read about Public Citizen’s other Internet free speech cases, click here