New Jersey Catholic Church Has No Legal Right to Unmask Internet Critic, Groups Tell Court

Aug. 26, 2010 

New Jersey Catholic Church Has No Legal Right to Unmask Internet Critic, Groups Tell Court

Public Citizen, ACLU Urge Judge to Make Church Prove Its Case

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Countering a New Jersey church’s unjustified pursuit of an anonymous e-mailer’s identity, Public Citizen and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) asked a court this week to rescind a legal order filed by the church and to protect the e-mailer’s privacy.

The two groups filed a brief in the Superior Court of New Jersey in Morris County this week, arguing that the church’s request for the source of an e-mail blaming poor management at Our Lady of the Magnificat School for declining student enrollment violated the First Amendment.

“Established law says that Internet critics cannot be unmasked unless several procedural and substantive protections are met,” said Public Citizen attorney Paul Alan Levy. “The requirement that legal and factual merit must be shown before the identity of Internet speakers can be discovered has been the law in New Jersey for nearly a decade.”

After several parents of children at the Our Lady of the Magnificat School, located in Kinnelon, received an e-mail in February accusing the school of poor management and speculating about student enrollment, the church brought concerns to court in June over slander and potential damage to its reputation.

The court ordered Cablevision, the Internet service provider, to produce documents identifying the critic. Cablevision notified the critic, who contacted Public Citizen and the ACLU-NJ for assistance.

As ruled in a case that Levy argued a decade ago before New Jersey’s Appellate Division, certain criteria must be met for a court to allow the search for an anonymous online commenter’s identity to proceed. First, the online commenter must receive notification in order to secure a legal defense. Second, a legal showing must prove the material in question is in fact defamatory. Third, a factual showing must prove the case against the critic is strong. The church in this case has met none of those criteria, Levy said.

“The Constitution allows everyone to express an opinion on matters that concern them without worrying about undue retaliation,” said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. “Our tradition of anonymous speech reaches back to the publication of the Federalist Papers. No one has the right to intimidate people into silence by threatening to unmask the anonymity they’re entitled to.”

The groups are asking the court to vacate its order to Cablevision. They are working with local attorney Richard L. Ravin of Hartman & Winnicki, P.C.

To read the brief, go to https://www.citizen.org/sites/default/files/in_re_olm_brief_supp_motion_reconsideration.pdf.

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Public Citizen is a national, nonprofit public interest organization based in Washington, D.C. For more information, please visit www.citizen.org.

The ACLU-NJ works to protect the constitutional rights of everyone in the state of New Jersey.