April 30, 2003
Public Citizen Forces Withdrawal of Suit Against Online Critic of Sexual Abuse at New Jersey Choir School
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Following notice that Public Citizen would defend the free speech right of an alumnus to use the Internet to publicize sexual abuse of students and that school’s response to the abuse, the American Boychoir School in Princeton, N.J., today dropped its suit seeking to silence the former student.
White Hall, Md., resident John Hardwicke suffered sexual abuse while a student at American Boychoir School in 1969 and 1970. After his lawsuit against the school was dismissed on grounds of immunity, Hardwicke created a Web site at www.americanboyschoir.com to detail sexual abuse at the school and decry its failure to respond to the problem. Hardwicke used a recent school directory to send e-mail to the parents of all current students urging them to visit his Web site.
The school sued him in Superior Court in Mercer County, N.J., claiming that the use of the school’s name in the site’s domain name and its content might confuse Internet viewers. The school also said that the colors on his Web site were too similar to the school’s official Web site and that Hardwicke’s site and e-mail would hurt its reputation and cause students to withdraw from the school.
The school also claimed that Hardwicke violated a New Jersey law by posting an excerpt from a letter about the school from the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services. Before Hardwicke could obtain a lawyer to defend himself, the trial judge granted a temporary restraining order prohibiting posting the state agency’s letter and set a hearing on a preliminary injunction for May 1.
Public Citizen, a nonprofit public interest organization that has a history of defending free speech on the Internet, notified the school’s lawyer that it would represent Hardwicke at the hearing. Public Citizen attorney Paul Alan Levy argued that Hardwicke’s Web site is protected by the First Amendment and does not violate trademark law, and he showed the school’s lawyer cases establishing First Amendment protections for everything that Hardwicke had done. Levy also explained that Hardwicke could not be sued in New Jersey for a Web site that he had created in Maryland. Within days of Public Citizen’s becoming involved, the school dismissed the lawsuit unconditionally.
“Lawsuits should not be used as intimidation tactics to chill free speech on the Internet,” Levy said. “The American Boychoir School recognized its error in suing and dropped the lawsuit quickly.”