Federal judge preserves blogger's anonymity

Chris Healy | Privacy | Feature | November 17, 2011

A federal court in California has ruled that an unnamed internet critic of an international spiritual organization can maintain his anonymity -- at least for now.

Judge Lucy H. Koh of the U.S. District Court in San Jose ruled last week that the blogger known as "Skywalker" does not need to reveal his identity to the Art of Living Foundation, an organization that promotes the spiritual lessons of "His Holiness Ravi Shankar." Koh ruled that Skywalker's significant First Amendment interest in speaking anonymously on a matter of public concern was more important than Art of Living's interest in discovering his identity, though that balance may change as the litigation proceeds.

Art of Living sued Skywalker and nine other unidentified persons, arguing that the bloggers' posting of the organization's "Breath Water Sound Manual" online as part of a larger campaign of criticism constituted copyright infringement and misappropriation of trade secrets. Art of Living, which is based in India, focuses on stress-free living through yoga, breathing techniques and meditation. It has chapters in 140 countries and is "one of the United Nations' largest volunteer-based NGOs," according to court documents.

According to Michael Risher of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the defendants, this case is unique in that most copyright cases involving anonymous online parties are music downloading cases, whereas this case involved religious, political, or social commentary.

In their complaint, Art of Living alleged that the defendants are "disgruntled former student-teachers and students" who infringed the organization's valid copyright. Skywalker and the defendants countered that Art of Living sought to use their copyright as a means to stifle constitutionally protected speech, according to court documents. Skywalker allegedly ran two blogs, entitled "Leaving the Art of Living" and "Beyond the Art of Living," both of which, the plaintiff says, were used to publish falsehoods and misappropriate trade secrets about the organization.

In her opinion, the judge noted that this case presents a situation unique among similar cases involving anonymous online speakers, because Skywalker has been actively engaged with, and fighting the lawsuit, while continuing to maintain anonymity.

Art of Living filed suit in November 2010, originally arguing that the defendants had defamed the organization, had misappropriated trade secrets, and had committed copyright infringement and trade libel by publishing the manual and “trade secret teaching methods.” Art of Living eventually narrowed their claim to allege only copyright infringement and misappropriation of trade secrets.

In an attempt to learn the identity of the defendants, Art of Living subpoenaed Google and Automattic, Inc., the web companies that host the defendant's blogs. The defendants challenged this without revealing themselves. In a motion to the court filed in February, the defendants said that Art of Living's claims were intended to chill criticism of the organization and its spiritual leader.

Judge Koh balanced Art of Living's interest in learning Skywalker's identity against Skywalker's interest in being free to engage in caustic criticism without revealing himself. Quoting a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (Ninth Circuit), Judge Koh succinctly recognized the First Amendment value served by concealing one's identity: "Anonymity liberates." To the extent that anonymity allows one to speak more freely, she wrote, revealing Skywalker's identity "diminishes the free exchange of ideas guaranteed by the Constitution."

Judge Koh noted in her ruling that, should the matter proceed to discovery or pre-trial depositions, the balance may shift against Skywalker.