ACLU of VA to Argue for Dismissal of Judge's Libel Lawsuit Against Website Author

May 6, 1999 12:00 am

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Thursday, May 6, 1999

RICHMOND — Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia will ask a Loudoun County court tomorrow to dismiss a Pennsylvania judge’s libel lawsuit against an anonymous website author.

At a hearing scheduled for 2:00 p.m. on Friday, May 7, the ACLU will ask for the dismissal on both jurisdictional and First Amendment grounds.

Although both the judge and the “John Doe” defendant live in Pennsylvania, the case was filed in Loudoun County, Virginia because the website is posted through America Online, Inc., whose corporate headquarters are in Virginia. While AOL is not a party to the suit, the judge’s lawyer has asked the court to issue a subpoena to AOL to surrender the name of the person who operates the website.

The case arose when Allegheny County State Superior Court Judge Joan Orie Melvin found comments critical of her on a website entitled “Grant Street 1999.” The website author accused the judge of lobbying on behalf of an attorney seeking a judgeship.

“Shame on Orie-Melvin,” John Doe wrote. “This is exactly the kind of misconduct by our elected officials that the residents of Allegheny County will not stand for anymore?and a good reason why Judges should be held accountable for their actions and remembered at the polls at retention time.”

Kent Willis, Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia, said that the libel lawsuit goes against the nation’s strong tradition of anonymous political speech.

“The First Amendment right to sincerely criticize elected officials — and to do so anonymously — is nearly absolute,” Willis said. “Had these comments appeared on the editorial page of a newspaper, no one would be questioning them.”

But because the Internet is allowing more individuals to voice their opinions on political matters, Willis noted, public officials are getting nervous and striking back in ways that threaten constitutionally protected expression.

“They should just get used to it,” he said. “This is standard soapbox rhetoric, only now the forum is worldwide rather than a handful of people gathered in a public park.”

In addition to the important free speech issues, a critical legal question in tomorrow’s argument centers on jurisdiction.

“We will be arguing that this case should not be filed in Virginia,” said ACLU of Virginia Associate Director Richard Ferris, who is one of the attorneys representing anonymous website author “John Doe.”

“It makes no sense for a Virginia court to be dealing with a dispute between two Pennsylvania residents just because the Internet provider’s corporate headquarters are located here,” he said. “Will we soon be seeing cases filed in Virginia when an AOL user in China offends a public official in South Africa?”

In addition to Ferris, John Doe is also represented by Rod Smolla, Esq. of the University of Richmond.

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