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New Jersey Condo Association President Cannot Violate the First Amendment Rights of His Online Critics

March 23, 2010

New Jersey Condo Association President Cannot Violate the First Amendment Rights of His Online Critics

In Potential Defamation Suit, Guttenberg, N.J., Man Must Follow Precedent, Judge Rules

 WASHINGTON, D.C. – A judge’s ruling in a defamation spat involving a New Jersey condominium association president and his online critics protects free speech and Internet anonymity, Public Citizen said.

  The judge decided Friday that Slava Lerner, president of the Galaxy Towers Condominium Association, a residential complex of more than 1,000 luxury units in Guttenberg, N.J., must follow legal procedures and not take shortcuts if he wanted to proceed with a defamation lawsuit.

Lerner said that he wanted to sue anonymous posters who criticized him on an Internet message board for Galaxy condo owners, but he refused to follow well-established procedures for identifying the posters established by the New Jersey courts in 2001 in Dendrite v. Doe. Lerner, who is running for re-election to his position, requested that the Web site’s operator, Michael DeLuca, be ordered to identify the posters without Lerner having to file the lawsuit.

Judge Hector Velazquez of the Superior Court for Hudson County, N.J., ruled that if Lerner wants to proceed, he must sue the “Doe” critics for defamation, then try to seek their identities by meeting the Dendrite requirements.

“Dodging these requirements would have made it easier to violate the posters’ First Amendment right to speak anonymously,” said Paul Alan Levy, a Public Citizen attorney who defended the Web site operator along with Richard Ravin, a New Jersey lawyer who also handles Internet anonymity cases. “Judge Velazquez’s decision reinforces the protections of the Dendrite decision and warns would-be defamation plaintiffs that those requirements cannot be evaded.”

Public Citizen appeared as a friend of the court in Dendrite and suggested the legal standard that was adopted by New Jersey Superior Court’s Appellate Division.

A copy of Friday’s order is available at https://www.citizen.org/sites/default/files/lernerorder.pdf.

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