Pennsylvania Court’s Decision to Protect Majority of Anonymous Online Posters a Win for Free Speech, Public Citizen Says

For Immediate Release:

Oct. 3, 2008  

Pennsylvania Court’s Decision to Protect Majority of Anonymous Online Posters a Win for Free Speech, Public Citizen Says

Public’s Right to Anonymously Criticize Elected Officials Upheld

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A ruling that protects the identity of the majority of anonymous posters on a Scranton, Pa., political Web site is a win for free speech, Public Citizen said today of an order by Judge Peter J. O’Brien filed in the Lackawanna Country Court of Common Pleas.

Last October, Scranton City Council President Judy Gatelli sought a court order requiring Joseph Pilchesky, the host of a message board on www.dohertydeceit.com, to reveal the identities of posters whom she accused of defamation, civil conspiracy and “engaging in a campaign of intentional emotional distress.”

In Gatelli’s complaint, she cited 130 messages posted on the Scranton “Political” Times, a site that links to DohertyDeceit and which Pilchesky also hosts.

Of the 98 “John Doe” defendants whose identity Gatelli initially sought, only six have been ordered disclosed.   None of Public Citizen’s seven Doe clients were ordered to be identified.

Public Citizen argued that because Gatelli is an elected official, her conduct is a fair subject for public comment. Furthermore, courts have ruled that subpoenas to reveal the names of anonymous speakers can chill free speech; those courts have upheld the right to communicate anonymously over the Internet.

“Of course she doesn’t like the scathing remarks of these anonymous commentators. But are we to expose members of the public just because they express opinions that our political leaders dislike?” said Paul Alan Levy, the Public Citizen attorney representing the anonymous defendants.

Both plaintiff Gatelli and defendant Pilchesky have indicated that they plan to appeal the order.   Public Citizen intends to participate in that appeal on behalf of its clients if Gatelli continues to seek to identify them, or as a friend of the court otherwise.

The judge’s decision may be found at   https://www.citizen.org/litigation/forms/cases/CaseDetails.cfm?cID=427.

George Barron, an attorney in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., was local counsel for the Doe defendants in opposing discovery. To reach Barron, visit www.attorneybarron.com.

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