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Court protects anonymity of Internet 'John Doe' from public disclosure

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         PENNSYLVANIA         Libel         Nov 17, 2000    

Court protects anonymity of Internet ‘John Doe’ from public disclosure

  • A Pennsylvania judge who sued an online critic for defamation will learn the identity of the defendant because she met a preliminary showing of necessity.

A Pittsburgh trial judge ruled on Nov. 15 that the identity of an Internet author would remain anonymous from everyone but the public official who sued for defamation.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Court Judge R. Stanton Wettick, Jr. did not dismiss the case against John Doe as requested by the ACLU, which represented the anonymous defendant, but did protect the criticism as political speech.

The ACLU trumpeted the decision as a victory for free speech because the plaintiff was not entitled to know the John Doe’s identity without a preliminary showing that the case had merit. The plaintiff satisfied the court that the identity was relevant, necessary and critical to the case, thereby resulting in the limited disclosure.

Allegheny County Superior Court Judge Joan Melvin sued for defamation after someone posted a statement on an AOL member’s webpage suggesting that the judge had lobbied Gov. Tom Ridge on behalf of a local attorney seeking a judicial appointment.

American Online notified John Doe that Melvin had requested his identity. The defendant’s attorney argued that Internet speech differs from typical political speech because many Internet publishers are financially incapable of defending libel suits, especially when lawsuits are brought only to discover the identity of the person who posted the statement.

“It is clear that the availability to public officials of state libel causes of action will have an impact on anonymous Internet criticism of public officials made in good faith,” Wettick wrote.

The court ruled that the First Amendment protects anonymous political speech that is not actionably false. The court recognized the new communicative frontier that the Internet represents, but held that state libel laws do not completely give way to anonymous speech. The plaintiff-judge satisfied the court that the identity of John Doe was material, relevant and necessary; could not be obtained by other means and was crucial to the case. Therefore, the court ruled, it was subject to the discovery request.

In order to protect the anonymous speaker from third party retribution, the court’s order provides that the identity of the publisher will be made available only to the parties and their counsel and will not be disclosed to any third party. As a practical matter this would mean the party’s identity would be made public if the case went to trial, according to Ronald Barber, a Pittsburgh attorney who assisted in representing the anonymous defendant.

“John Doe is still every bit as afraid of [suffering retribution] as ever. Protecting this from the public at large is not what this case is about. Protecting an anonymous critic of government from the government is what this is all about,” Barber said.

Barber noted that this case was unique from other Internet John Doe lawsuits because the plaintiff is a public figure.

“These cases are popping up everywhere. Corporations are suing anonymous posters on the Internet who have posted criticism of the corporation,” Barber said. “But this is the only case that involves a plaintiff who is an elected government official where the criticism was of her public and official conduct. That’s the heart of the First Amendment.”

(Melvin v. Doe; Media Counsel: Ronald Barber, Pittsburgh; Witold Walczak, Pittsburgh; Ann Beeson, New York City) DB

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