Time Warner ordered to identify sender of offensive e-mail

In the case of Fitch v. Doe, the Supreme Court of Maine has held that while the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 generally prohibits a cable operator’s disclosure of subscriber information, an exception provided in the Act allows disclosure to nongovernmental entities pursuant to court order, so long as the subscriber has received notification thereof.

On Christmas Eve 2003, an anonymous person sent an email under Plaintiff Fitch’s name with a derogatory cartoon attached. Fitch filed suit in Maine state court against the unknown sender of the email (John or Jane Doe). Fitch then sought an order directing Time Warner (the ISP of the account from which the message was sent) to disclose Doe’s identity. Doe’s counsel objected to the disclosure, arguing that the disclosure was forbidden by the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984, 47 U.S.C.A. § 551 (the “Act”), and that Doe did not consent to allow Time Warner to disclose his identity. The trial court ordered disclosure, finding that Doe’s agreement with Time Warner provided such consent.

Doe appealed to the Maine Supreme Court, but the lower court’s decision to order disclosure was affirmed. Although the court concluded that the lower court erred in determining Doe had consented to disclosure, such disclosure was authorized under an exception found in the Act.

The Act restricts cable providers from releasing information about their subscribers without the consent of the subscriber concerned. Section 551(c)(2)(B) of the Act authorizes disclosure of personally identifiable information if the disclosure is, “subject to subsection (h) of [Section 551], made pursuant to a court order authorizing such disclosure, if the subscriber is notified of such order by the person to whom the order is directed.”

Section 551(h) provides that when a governmental entity is seeking disclosure, it must show by clear and convincing evidence that criminal activity is reasonably suspected. Doe had argued that the reference to Section 551(h) served to “meld” the entire exception into one applicable only when the government seeks information about a subscriber. Because Fitch was not a governmental entity, Doe argued that the exception to the restriction of disclosure should not apply.

The court disagreed, and held that 511(h) served merely to impose a higher standard when the government seeks disclosure of information about a cable subscriber. Because Fitch was not a governmental entity, Time Warner was permitted to release the information in response to a valid court order, so long as it had given notice to Doe. The record established that Doe had received such notice, thus the Act did not bar Fitch’s access to the requested information.

Fitch v. Doe, — A.2d —-, 2005 WL 627569 (S.Ct. Me., March 18, 2005).

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).

Court wrongly took judicial notice of facts contained on government website

The Sixth Circuit has overturned the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio’s dismissal of a class action lawsuit against the City of Columbus, holding that the magistrate judge improperly considered evidence contained on the city’s website. The magistrate had taken judicial notice of the information contained on the website, but the Court of Appeals held that the website was not a public record containing information the accuracy of which could not reasonably be questioned.

Plaintiffs filed suit against the City of Columbus, Ohio alleging that a mediation program established by the city to handle disputes over bad checks violated the Federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and the Ohio Consumer Sales Protection Act. The City moved to dismiss, arguing that the program was neither a “debt collector” under the Federal act nor a “supplier” under the Ohio law, and thus could not be liable under either of the statutes. The magistrate judge granted the motion to dismiss. In reaching its decision, the magistrate judge took judicial notice of information contained on the City’s website, namely, a statement that the program’s purpose was to resolve disputes, not collect debts.

The Court of Appeals overturned the magistrate judge’s dismissal and remanded the case for further proceedings. At issue was whether the judge properly took judicial notice of the information contained on the City’s website. Noting that a district court generally may take judicial notice of the existence of public records, the Court of Appeals held that “a court may only take judicial notice of a public record whose existence or contents prove facts whose accuracy cannot reasonably be questioned.”

The City had argued that the website was a public record simply because it was the record of a public entity. The Court swiftly determined, however, that the plaintiffs had reasonably questioned the accuracy of the information, and that they should have been given the opportunity to introduce contradictory evidence. The magistrate judge’s reliance on the website constituted reversible error.

The court gave a nod to public policy considerations that should prohibit a court from blindly accepting the contents of government websites: “If all online statements by a government agency could be relied upon as true by a court considering a motion to dismiss, government agencies could defuse any complaint alleging improper governmental motives merely by stating an arguably proper motive on their website. Such a result could eviscerate all sorts of fraud, civil rights, and other laws requiring investigations into governmental motives.”

Passa v. City of Columbus, 2005 U.S. App. LEXIS 2832 (6th Cir. February 16, 2005).

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