PA Court Establishes First-Ever Protections For Online Critics of Public Officials

November 15, 2000 12:00 am

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PA Court Establishes First-Ever Protections
For Online Critics of Public Officials FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
November 15, 2000

PITTSBURGH — In a ruling that establishes new protections for anonymous online authors, a state court judge here said today that public officials and others cannot use frivolous defamation lawsuits to ferret out the identity of their critics.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which has defended numerous anonymous authors including the “John Doe” in today’s case, Melvin v. Doe, hailed the ruling as an important step forward in Internet free speech case law.

“Until today, a public official or employer claiming defamation could get a court to disclose the name of an anonymous Web author simply by filing a lawsuit,” said ACLU National Staff Attorney Ann Beeson, who litigated the case along with attorneys from the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s Greater Pittsburgh Chapter.

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. Melvin then filed a defamation lawsuit seeking disclosure of the author’s name.

Beeson noted that in many of the defamation cases the ACLU has handled, individuals felt their speech was “chilled” by the threat of a lawsuit — often brought by deep-pockets corporations or powerful individuals — and by the threat of disclosure.

Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr. today noted that “anonymous Internet speakers, unlike the national media, are vulnerable because they lack power or money. Without anonymity, speakers will be less willing to express controversial positions because of fears of reprisal.”

Judge Wettick’s opinion cited examples of an employee reporting anonymously that employer was dumping toxic waste, and a speaker who criticizes a school superintendent who hires teachers on the basis of “who they know” rather than competency.

A key holding in today’s ruling says that identity may not be disclosed until the anonymous speaker has had an opportunity to prove that the defamation lawsuit is without merit.

Although the ruling is a significant victory for free speech rights, the ACLU did not prevail in its specific argument that the case should be dismissed. The ACLU is now considering whether to appeal.

Significantly, however, Judge Wettick said that “John Doe’s” identity in this case “shall be subject to a protective order,” emphasizing that “any ruling that does not fully protect the anonymity of the anonymous Internet speaker may deter anonymous Internet speech.”

“The importance of this ruling is clear when you consider the thousands of anonymous people online right now who are criticizing Florida public officials in the election controversy,” said Witold “Vic” Walczak, Executive Director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s Greater Pittsburgh Chapter.

Walczak noted that lawsuits like the one Judge Melvin brought against “John Doe” are rapidly multiplying and that judges and lawyers will be struggling with the issue for years. “Judge Wettick’s ruling is a good first step in the ultimate goal of preserving the right to speak freely online,” he said.

The case is Melvin v. Doe, No. GD99-10264. ACLU national attorneys in the case are Beeson and Senior Staff Attorney Chris Hansen; ACLU attorneys in Pittsburgh are Walczak, volunteer attorney Ronald Barber of Strassburger, McKenna, Gutnick & Potter and volunteer attorney Susan Yohe of Buchanan Ingersoll, who argued the case before Judge Wettick.

A brief in the case can be viewed online here

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