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Ford abandons appeal in Internet publication of company documents

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  1. Prior Restraint

    NMU         SIXTH CIRCUIT         Prior Restraints         Jan 19, 2000    

Ford abandons appeal in Internet publication of company documents

  • A notice of appeal has been withdrawn by Ford Motor Co., leaving intact a ruling that a student can post internal Ford documents on his web site.

The Ford Motor Co. has withdrawn its appeal of a federal judge’s ruling that a student can continue to post internal Ford Motor Co. documents on his web site.

Ford filed a motion with the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati (6th Cir.) on Dec. 30 requesting to withdraw its previously-filed notice of appeal. The court granted Ford’s request on Jan. 5. The case concerns an Internet web site published by Robert Lane at www.blueovalnews.com, which is devoted to news about Ford and its products.

Still pending in federal court is Lane’s separate $15 million suit against Ford, which alleges that Ford invaded his privacy, attempted to silence his web site, and violated antitrust laws. The lawsuit argues in part that Ford improperly secured a temporary restraining order in the underlying case and that Ford has attempted to illegally break into Lane’s web site and e-mail account.

Ford’s decision not to appeal the underlying case leaves in place the September 1999 decision of Detroit federal trial judge Nancy G. Edmonds, who stated in her opinion that the case presents a clash between the First Amendment and protection of commercial freedom. “In this case, the battle is won by the First Amendment,” Edmunds wrote in denying Ford’s attempt to keep Lane from using, copying, or disclosing company trade secrets.

In discussing the history of prior restraints against the media, Edmonds refused to distinguish between national newspapers and web sites. “While the reach and power of the Internet raises serious legal implications, nothing in our jurisprudence suggests that the First Amendment is circumscribed by the size of the publisher or his audience,” she wrote. She also noted that even though “technology blurs the traditional identities of David and Goliath,” courts continue to steadfastly rule that the “First Amendment does not permit the prior restraint of speech by injunction, even in circumstances where the disclosure threatens vital economic interests.”

She rejected Ford’s argument that the court should consider Lane’s conduct in obtaining the documents and his threats to sell the documents. “In the absence of a confidentiality agreement or fiduciary duty between the parties, Ford’s commercial interest in its trade secrets and Lane’s alleged improper conduct in obtaining the trade secrets are not grounds for issuing a prior restraint,” the court wrote.

Lane, a nursing student, initially informed Ford in October 1998 that Ford employees had provided him with photographs and documents that concerned Ford products. After initially agreeing to obtain Ford’s permission before posting any of the material on his web site, Lane changed his mind and began publishing internal memoranda, agendas, and engineering blueprints that concerned Ford’s existing and future products. Lane also planned to sell some of Ford’s engineering blueprints, according to the court.

When Ford first threatened legal action, Lane responded by posting 40 additional Ford documents online, “including materials with high competitive sensitivity,” according to the court. Ford then filed its lawsuit in federal court in Detroit and requested a temporary restraining order against Lane on August 25. That same day, the court’s presiding judge granted a temporary restraining order, which stated in part that Lane could not use, copy or disclose “any internal document of Ford Motor Company.”

(Ford Motor Co. v. Lane; Media Counsel: C. Mark Pickrell, Nashville)

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