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Memphis police back off attempt to unmask anonymous blogger

When Memphis Police Director Larry Godwin and city officials decided they didn’t like some of the things a local blogger was posting, they did what any deep-pocketed bully might do — they took the anonymous blogger to court. It didn’t really matter that they had no real basis for their case. Maybe they figured a little harassment and intimidation at the taxpayers’ expense would be enough to get the blogger to shut up.

So, now it seems, they may be thinking better of it, having decided to drop a subpoena against the author of the MPD Enforcer 2.0 blog after Public Citizen stepped in to defend the blogger. In dropping its subpoena to identify the blogger, the city’s actions appear to concede that the First Amendment protects the right of anonymous speech. It also sends the message to other bullies who think they can use the power of the subpoena to easily unmask anonymous bloggers.

Public Citizen attorney Paul Alan Levy, who has had a number of wins in similar Internet free speech cases, had this to say about the case:

The City of Memphis and Police Director Larry Godwin have finally realized that their attempt to unmask an anonymous blogger was not only misguided, it was unconstitutional . . . Courts across the country have held that plaintiffs cannot identify their Internet critics simply by issuing subpoenas — they have to show that their suit has merit. The plaintiffs here, confronted with this rule, recognized that they could not show any right to sue . . .

How ridiculous were Godwin and the city’s claims? No one really knew because the city sealed their brief in the Memphis court. But for some reason, when the city filed its subpoena with America Online in Virginia, it did so publicly, allowing everyone to read its flimsy legal arguments. Oops.

The MPD made the claim that the blogger revealed the identity of an undercover officer, thereby endangering the lives of the officer and the officer’s family. What the city didn’t mention is that it had already published a photo of the officer on its own Web site.

You can read more about the case in the Memphis Commercial Appeal.