In Legal First, ACLU Asks Pennsylvania Supreme Court to Protect Anonymous Online Speakers from Legal Intimidation
PITTSBURGH--In the first case of its kind ever to reach a state supreme court, the American Civil Liberties Union today asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to protect anonymous speakers in cyberspace who face legal intimidation from public officials whom they criticize.
""Unless the freedom to criticize anonymously is safeguarded, a vital democratizing element of the Internet will be lost,"" said Witold Walczak, Executive Director of the Pittsburgh ACLU and one of the lawyers for the defendant, known only as ""John Doe"" to protect his anonymity.
Walczak noted that anonymous speech has historically played a crucial role in promoting democracy. ""Not only did The Federalist Papers and Thomas Paine's Common Sense, both printed pseudonymously, change the course of American history, but evidence today suggests that anonymous Internet speech played a role in the collapse of the Soviet Union.""
In Melvin v. Doe, the ACLU is asking the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to require people who file defamation lawsuits to prove they have suffered actual economic harm before they can unmask their critics. The ACLU is arguing that without such protection, the time-honored right to criticize public officials anonymously will be chilled on the Internet.
In this case, Pennsylvania Superior Court Judge Joan Orie Melvin has for more than three years been trying to unmask the webmaster of a political gossip page, GrantStreet99, who criticized her for allegedly lobbying the governor to fill a judicial vacancy. Her first attempt, a defamation lawsuit in Virginia, was dismissed with the help of the Virginia ACLU. This Pennsylvania suit is her second attempt to uncover Doe's identity.
Judge Melvin's suit is one of thousands of similar lawsuits that have been filed in the past few years to unmask cyber-critics. Underscoring the proliferation of such lawsuits, Internet giant America Online submitted its own legal brief in the Melvin case today, saying it had handled approximately 432 such subpoenas in 2001, more than one per day. Attempts to intimidate online critics by filing such actions constitutes ""an illegitimate use of the courts to silence and retaliate against speakers,"" AOL said in legal papers.
Public Citizen, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center are also filing a friend-of-the-court brief in the case. These groups, along with the ACLU, are part of a coalition of public interest organizations that provide legal advice and representation to anonymous speakers on the Internet. The coalition runs a web site at http://www.cyberslapp.org.
""Political speech on the Internet most frequently occurs anonymously, especially when the speaker is critical of policies, local conditions or officials,"" said Ann Beeson, Litigation Director of the ACLU's Technology & Liberty Program.
In many of the defamation cases the ACLU has handled, individuals feel their speech was ""chilled"" by the threat of a lawsuit -- often brought by deep-pocket corporations or powerful public figures -- and by the threat of disclosure.
""The Pennsylvania Supreme Court should recognize the First Amendment rights of anonymous Internet speakers and should enact a rule that guarantees such protection, as other federal and state courts have done recently in similar cases,"" said Beeson.
Attorneys participating in the case are, in addition to Beeson and Walczak, Christopher A. Hansen and Juan G. Villaseñor of the National ACLU and Ronald Barber from the Pittsburgh law firm Strassburger, McKenna, Gutnick & Potter.
The AOL legal brief is available on the ACLU website at: /Privacy/Privacy.cfm?ID=10824&c=131&SubsiteID=42
The Public Citizen legal brief is available online at: http://www.citizen.org/documents/Melvin%202.pdf
Previous news release on the Melvin case are at: