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State high court rules anonymous political speech should be protected

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         PENNSYLVANIA         Libel    

State high court rules anonymous political speech should be protected

  • The state Supreme Court ordered the lower court to review whether anonymous speakers’ identities must be revealed in a defamation lawsuit.

Nov. 21, 2003 — Ruling in a defamation lawsuit brought by a public official against anonymous Internet authors, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said yesterday that anonymous political speech is an important First Amendment right.

This is the first state-level Supreme Court to hear the issue of whether anonymous political speech on the Internet is protected by the First Amendment, according to an article published today on law.com. Although the court did not decide the constitutional question, the opinion suggests a favorable view of the right of Internet authors to publish anonymous political criticism.

The Supreme Court ordered the lower court to determine whether a public official must prove financial harm before the identities of anonymous authors can be ordered to be revealed.

Justice William H. Lamb, writing for the majority in the 4-3 ruling, expressed the court’s view of the importance of the anonymous speakers’ First Amendment rights.

“There is no question that generally, the constitutional right to anonymous free speech is a right deeply rooted in public policy that goes beyond this particular litigation, and that falls within the class of rights that are too important to be denied review,” Lamb wrote.

Before the case can go back to trial, the appellate court must now review the trial court’s order to reveal the identities of the authors.

“It is clear that once Appellant’s identities are disclosed, their First Amendment claim is irreparably lost as there are no means by which to later cure such disclosure,” the court held.

The case arose when state Superior Court Judge Joan Orie Melvin brought a libel action in 1999 for statements made by individuals using the Internet Web page name “Grant Street 99,” via an America Online service. The Web page contained allegations, posted in 1999, that Melvin had engaged in misconduct by lobbying then-Gov. Tom Ridge to appoint an attorney for a judicial seat.

The lower court denied the motion for a protective order, filed by attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union, who argued on behalf of the individuals, and ordered the authors to reveal their identities to Melvin. The authors appealed that order, but the Pennsylvania Superior Court quashed the motion, stating that the “collateral order” doctrine applied. The doctrine allows for only collateral issues in a case to be appealed, to ensure that a case is not appealed on the merits while it is still going through the trial court process.

However, the state Supreme Court ruled that the issue of whether the speakers’ identities should be revealed was a collateral issue, significantly important and distinct enough from the defamation action to allow for an immediate appeal.

(Melvin v. Doe et al.; Media Counsel: Ronald D. Barber, Pittsburgh; Witold Walczak, Pittsburgh; Ann Beeson, New York) KM

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