A blogger fighting a sweepingly broad subpoena that is seeking the identities of hundreds of his readers filed a motion in Virginia court on Thursday arguing that their identities should be protected.
The Charlottesville-based blogger who runs cvillenews.com, Waldo Jaquith, wrote an article about a defamation lawsuit against a local weekly newspaper, The Hook. In February, Jaquith was subpoenaed by the plaintiff in that defamation case, Thomas Garrett, who sought the names and IP addresses of everyone who viewed and commented anonymously on Jaquith’s article, as well as everyone who emailed him about it.
Jaquith started fighting the subpoena without an attorney by filing a motion to quash, which was followed shortly by Garrett’s motion to compel.
The case garnered attention in the blogosphere, and Jaquith was able to obtain pro bono assistance from Public Citizen, the ACLU of Virginia and the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.
In the motion filed Thursday, the attorneys argued that the information sought is protected by a reporter’s privilege.
“In an era when increasing amount of news coverage can exclusively be found online, and when even traditional newspapers like the Christian Science Monitor are moving to exclusively online publication, there is no basis for drawing an artificial line confining the reporter’s privilege to print and broadcast publications while excluding bloggers like Jaquith,” the motion argues.
The attorneys cite to the common law-based qualified reporter’s privilege recognized by Virginia courts and argue that it should apply to Jaquith just as it would apply to the traditional news media.
The motion also points to several recent court decisions nationwide that have protected anonymous speech on the Internet.
In one line of cases, courts across the country have found that the identities of people who comment anonymously on Web sites are protected under either state shield laws or First Amendment-based reporter’s privilege. And in another, courts have frequently applied a balancing test that weighs the need to unmask an anonymous speaker with the need for a plaintiff to pursue a defamation claim.
“The courts have recognized the serious chilling effect that subpoenas to reveal the names of anonymous speakers can have on dissenters and the First Amendment interests that are implicated by such subpoenas,” the attorneys argue.