20/20 Financial Consulting, Inc. v. Does 1-5, 2010 WL 1904530 (D.Colo. May 11, 2010) [Opinion embedded below.]
A financial consulting company has filed a lawsuit in federal court in Colorado alleging that certain anonymous web users have posted defamatory statements about the plaintiff on blogs and in message forums. The plaintiff asked the court for an order permitting it to serve subpoenas (apparently to the host and/or the ISP) to uncover the identity of the anonymous bloggers.
With essentially no analysis of the rights of the “John Doe” defendants, the court ordered that the discovery be permitted. This ruling is troubling for a couple of reasons.
There’s an important potential First Amendment issue here over which the court appears to have run roughshod. Each one of us has the constitutional right to speak anonymously. And courts need to be careful not to breach that right when asked to order that anonymous speakers be identified. Responsible courts give this constitutional interest the appropriate treatment by requiring that a certain showing by the plaintiff be made before the unmasking is permitted. See this page for a whole host of court opinions addressing that balancing test.
If the court went through that analysis in this case, it sure does not show up in the opinion.
One big troubling aspect is that the court compared the present situation to one in an earlier copyright infringement case brought by the RIAA. That comparison is not quite valid. In copyright cases, unlike defamation cases, the nature of what the plaintiff pleads is necessarily different — you have to plead a valid copyright registration as half of your prima facie case of copyright infringement. That means you already have the Copyright Office’s stamp of approval, so to speak, that the rights you are asserting are valid. In defamation cases there’s nothing equivalent to a copyright registration certificate. The plaintiff just says the offending statements are defamatory, and that has to be proven later. Simply stated, a claim for copyright infringement, properly pled, will be stronger, and will tend to suggest more clearly, that something actionable has occurred, than will mere assertions of defamation.
Apart from cursorily comparing this case to an unmasking in a copyright infringement case, the court does not mention the potential First Amendment concern of the anonymous defendants, nor does it mention the strength of the plaintiff’s allegations of defamation. The court simply says, “[b]ecause it appears likely that Plaintiff will continue to be thwarted in its attempts to identify Defendants without the benefit of formal discovery mechanisms, the court finds that Plaintiff should be permitted to conduct expedited discovery.” Such a reasoning would suggest anyone sued as a John Doe for defamation should be unmasked pretty much as a matter of course. That’s dangerous.