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Posting of internal corporate documents on the Internet allowed

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  1. Prior Restraint

    NMU         MICHIGAN         Prior Restraints         Sep 20, 1999    

Posting of internal corporate documents on the Internet allowed

  • A federal trial judge in Detroit overturned her own temporary restraining order that kept a student from posting internal Ford Motor Co. documents on his web site.

Saying that the case presented a clash between the First Amendment and protection of commercial freedom, a federal trial judge in Detroit ruled in early September that a student could continue to post internal Ford Motor Co. documents on his web site.

“In this case, the battle is won by the First Amendment,” Judge Nancy G. Edmunds wrote in denying Ford’s attempt to keep Robert Lane from using, copying, or disclosing company trade secrets. Lane runs a web site,, devoted to news about Ford and its products.

In discussing the history of prior restraints against the media, the court 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,” the court wrote. The court 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.”

The court 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.” Ford then filed a 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 was restrained from “using, copying or disclosing any internal document of Ford Motor Company.”

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

© 1999 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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