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New Jersey Officials Barred From Learning Identities of Citizens Who Posted Criticisms on Web

Jan. 2, 2002

New Jersey Officials Barred From Learning Identities of Citizens Who Posted Criticisms on Web

Court Cites First Amendment Rights of Critics, Adopts Arguments Set Forth by Public Citizen, ACLU

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Issuing a ruling that strongly upholds the First Amendment rights of anonymous Internet speakers, a New Jersey judge has refused an attempt by Emerson, N.J., public officials to learn who criticized them on the Internet. The superior court judge also dismissed the officials? suit against the Emerson citizen who created the Internet bulletin board devoted to public affairs in Emerson on which the citizens anonymously aired their views.

Two Emerson council members, a council candidate and the head of the local Republican Party had sued 60 John and Jane Does as well as the site?s creator, claiming defamation and harassment. The officials sought information from Internet service provider VantageNet that would identify those who posted the messages. The Bergen County superior court judge, however, quashed the subpoena. The decision was made in late December but was released to the public today.

Adopting arguments advanced in an amicus brief by attorneys for Public Citizen and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ), Judge Marc Russello ruled that the plaintiffs had not met the strict tests established by New Jersey courts for a subpoena to be served to obtain the identities of anonymous Internet speakers. The court faulted the plaintiffs for not providing sufficient notice of the subpoena on the bulletin board and for not providing a sufficient basis to show that each of the allegedly defamatory statements was speech that could be the basis for a lawsuit. Also agreeing with the groups, the court extended the benefit of its ruling to all of the anonymous speakers, regardless of whether they were represented by attorneys.

“This suit is a clear attempt to intimidate the townspeople so they stop making comments about their officials,” said Paul Alan Levy, an attorney for Public Citizen, which got involved in the case because it has a history of defending First Amendment rights. “The judge?s decision protects citizens? rights to participate in anonymous debate about their public officials, without fear of being dragged into court.”

The court also ruled that no legal action could be brought against the Web master for the allegedly defamatory statements published on the bulletin board by the anonymous posters, because a federal statute, the Communications Decency Act, places responsibility for Internet speech squarely on the speakers themselves while protecting Web masters and Internet service providers from being sued for statements made by others using their facilities.

“Steven Moldow?s site, which is devoted to topics relating to local government, represents a terrific gift to the community,” Levy said. “If someone like Moldow has to face the prospect of ruinous litigation from any person who is criticized on the Web site, then very few citizens would ever set up such valuable sites.”

Public Citizen attorneys also participated as amicus curiae in the precedent-setting case of Dendrite v. Doe, where the New Jersey Appellate Division became the first appellate court in the country to apply First Amendment principles when setting standards for the identification of anonymous Internet speakers. Public Citizen?s attorneys have represented Internet speakers in cases in California, Connecticut, Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and elsewhere.