Court tells ISPs they can’t have their servers back

In the case of Voicenet Communications, Inc. v. Pappert, 2005 WL 546645 (March 9, 2005), the Third Circuit has upheld the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania’s denial of injunctive relief that would have ordered government officials to return certain items of computer hardware to the technology companies from which they were seized in a criminal investigation. The court held that the plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate irreparable harm that would result from the government’s continued possession of the equipment.

Plaintiffs Voicenet and Omni provide access to Usenet, through servers called “arrays.” In 2003, state and local officials seized numerous arrays owned by plaintiffs after being informed that the software on the servers was being used to access illegal pornography. When the officials would not return the arrays, plaintiffs filed suit, claiming violations of their First Amendment rights, and seeking, among other things, a preliminary injunction that would order the return of the arrays.

The District Court denied injunctive relief and the Court of Appeals affirmed. Voicenet and Omni had argued that they and their customers would suffer irreparable harm if the court did not grant the preliminary injunction. The appellate court held that plaintiffs had not shown irreparable harm from being denied possession of the arrays, in part because the arrays could have been replaced for approximately $20,000. The fact that money damages could provide relief precluded an award of injunctive relief.

The court further held that the District Court properly denied injunctive relief that would have required the officials to return to plaintiffs the subscriber records residing on the servers. The officials had promised not to view the records without first notifying the plaintiffs, who could then seek injunctive relief to prevent such viewing. The plaintiffs had argued that giving such discretion to the officials contravened the holding of ACLU v. Reno, 929 F.Supp. 824 (E.D.Pa. 1996). The court in that case had explained that “the First Amendment should not be interpreted to require us to entrust the protection it affords to the judgment of prosecutors.” In this case, however, the court held that no prosecutorial discretion remained, as “the officers’ assurances were absolute.”

Voicenet Communications, Inc. v. Pappert, 2005 WL 546645 (March 9, 2005) (Not selected for official publication).