VA Court Dismisses Libel Lawsuit Against Anonymous Website Author

June 30, 1999 12:00 am

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Wednesday, June 30, 1999

RICHMOND, VA — In an important development in Internet law, a Virginia court has ruled that a Pennsylvania judge’s libel lawsuit against an anonymous website author cannot be brought in Virginia.

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 had asked the court to issue a subpoena to AOL to surrender the name of the person who operates the website.

The court today dismissed the entire case on jurisdictional grounds and quashed the subpoena for the name of John Doe.

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

“Shame on Orie Melvin,” the website author 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.”

In order to determine who had authored the comments, lawyers for Judge Orie Melvin filed suit in Loudoun County and asked the court there to issue a subpoena to AOL demanding the release of name of the subscriber who posted the website.

Representing the subscriber, the ACLU of Virginia argued both that Judge Orie Melvin lacked jurisdiction to bring the case in Virginia and that the First Amendment protected the right of the author to make anonymous remarks critical of a public official.

Loudoun County Circuit Court Judge Thomas D. Horne ruled that his court lacked jurisdiction to hear the matter. In a decision issued late last week, the judge wrote: “The fact that America Online, a Virginia corporation with its principal place of business in Loudoun County, may offer subscribers the opportunity to engage in an open and continuous forum for communication throughout the world does not, consistent with due process, open the Courts of Commonwealth to actions such as the one under consideration.”

Horne added that a “reasonable person would not expected to be ‘haled’ before a Court in the Commonwealth for the publication of material that could not with any degree of foreseeability evoke a response from one of its citizens.”

Kent Willis, Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia, said he hoped that the court’s ruling would discourage any further “witch hunts” for anonymous speakers on the Internet.

“While the judge’s legal reasoning is based on the right of due process, it is also an important victory for free speech,” he said.

The author of the website was represented by Richard Ferris, Esq., Associate Director for the ACLU of Virginia, and ACLU cooperating attorney Rod Smolla, Esq. of the University of Richmond.

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