School Has Not Proven Defamation, Court Should Protect Critic’s Anonymity

Sept. 21, 2011 

Law School Has Not Justified Unmasking Critic, Public Citizen Tells Court

School Has Not Proven Defamation, Court Should Protect Critic’s Anonymity

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The identity of a blogger who criticized his law school online should not yet be revealed, Public Citizen said in an amicus brief !!! filed today in a Michigan court.

Thomas Cooley Law School, which has several campuses in Michigan and one in Florida, is suing the author of a blog post that the school says defamed it. The blog post claimed that Cooley is a bad law school that uses misleading statements about the school’s value to attract students and that the school uses underhanded tactics to milk students of additional tuition.

Cooley has not met the criteria needed to justify unmasking an anonymous blogger, Public Citizen said in the brief. In fact, the law school has failed to prove that the blog post is even defamatory.

“The mere fact that a plaintiff has filed a lawsuit over a particular piece of speech does not create a compelling government interest in taking away the defendant’s anonymity,” said Paul Alan Levy, an attorney with Public Citizen who specializes in Internet free speech. “Setting the bar too low for disclosure would have a chilling effect on free speech. It is especially disconcerting here that a law school is the plaintiff trying to suppress one of its students’ voices.”

Cooley Law School sparked a national controversy in 1996 when it manipulated statistics to show that it was the 12th best law school in the country; this year, it added eight more factors to its test and now claims Cooley as the second best law school in the country. Among other things, some have complained that the law school misrepresented data about its students’ post-graduation employment.

The blogger, a former Cooley student, detailed several critiques of the school in a blog post entitled, “Thomas Cooley Law School Scam.” Several other anonymous people posted additional criticisms in the blog’s comment section.

In response, Cooley sued both the blogger (identified as John Doe) and three anonymous commenters on July 14 in Lansing, Mich., charging them with defamation. The blogger presumably learned of the suit by reading a press account, then got a lawyer and filed a motion to quash any subpoenas to the blog’s hosting service.

Now, the court will examine what the school should have to show to justify stripping the blogger of his anonymity.

“At this point, Cooley has claimed only that some false statements have been made about it,” Levy said. “Now it has to show that the statements on which it has sued are defamatory statements of fact, not just opinions, and to present evidence that the factual statements are false.”

To be able to obtain the blogger’s identity, Public Citizen argues in its brief, Cooley should have to notify him, and it should have to point out the specific speech that it claims is defamatory so that the court can weigh each claim and the evidence that supports it. The court should then weigh the potential harm to the school from being unable to proceed with a defamation suit and compare it to the harm the blogger would suffer from losing his anonymity. Only the notification has been accomplished.

Public Citizen urges the court to protect the anonymous blogger against being identified unless Cooley can point to defamatory speech and present evidence in support of its suit.

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