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Public Citizen and ACLU-NJ Defend Couple Ordered by Judge to Turn Over Computer to Opposing Party in Lawsuit

June 30, 2005

Public Citizen and ACLU-NJ Defend Couple Ordered by Judge to Turn Over Computer to Opposing Party in Lawsuit

NEWARK, N.J. – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and Public Citizen have agreed to represent Scott and Charlene “Charlie” Uhrmann in an appeal from a trial judge’s order requiring them to turn over their computer hard drive to public officials they sued. The public officials requested the computer hard drive, which contains financial and other information about the couple, to determine whether they anonymously posted derogatory statements about them on the Internet.

“We’re being asked to turn over all of our private information to the defendant because we decided to take a stand as taxpayers and challenge what we believe to be misuse of public funds,” said Scott Uhrmann. “The total loss of privacy is a rather harsh consequence for trying to protect our and our fellow taxpayers’ rights.”

In January 2005, Charlene and Scott Uhrmann sued a current and a former member of the Mount Olive town council, claiming that, as part-time officials, they were not entitled to the medical and dental benefits they received. The Uhrmanns sued to see that the money is returned to Mount Olive.

The officials claim that the Uhrmanns were responsible for criticisms about them posted in online chat rooms using pseudonyms. However, the officials have not countersued for defamation. Nevertheless, the officials requested the Uhrmanns’ hard drives to determine whether the Uhrmanns did in fact write the postings they felt were defamatory. On May 19, 2005, Judge D. Hunt Dumont denied the Uhrmanns’ motion to quash the officials’ request to produce their hard drive.

“Today’s computer hard drives have replaced yesterday’s filing cabinets and boxes for the storage of documents,” stated ACLU-NJ cooperating attorney Richard Ravin, of Hartman & Winnicki, P.C., who practices Technology and Intellectual Property Law in Paramus, New Jersey. “Ordering individuals to turn over their hard drives to an opponent in a lawsuit is the equivalent of allowing someone to drive a truck up to one’s door, look through every piece of paper in their home or business and make copies of whatever they want – Social Security numbers, financial statements, bank records, medical records, school records, personal letters, business records, photographs, and untold other documents – and drive off, to use such personal and confidential information at their discretion.”

The ACLU-NJ and Public Citizen, a national nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, will explain on appeal that the trial court erred in granting the public officials’ request for the Uhrmanns’ computer hard drives. The order violates free speech and privacy rights as well as established law on rules of discovery and on anonymous Internet postings.

“Prior cases set forth an explicit and stringent test to determine whether and how anonymous Internet posters should be identified,” stated Paul Alan Levy of Public Citizen, who is lead counsel for the Uhrmanns. “The trial court made an end-run around that clearly established law.”

The ACLU-NJ and Public Citizen previously jointly submitted a brief in Dendrite v. Doe, the case in which the standard for identifying anonymous Internet speech was established.   In addition, Public Citizen represented two flight attendants for Northwest Airlines in an appeal from a court order allowing the airline to seize their hard drives.

The current case is captioned Uhrmann v. Scapicchio.   The Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court will decide shortly whether to hear the Uhrmanns’ request for review of the trial court order.

To read the letter that the ACLU-NJ and Public Citizen sent to the Appellate Division, click here.