Site operator successfully challenges subpoena which sought to unmask anonymous commenters

Enterline v. Pocono Medical Center, 2008 WL 5192386 (M.D. Pa. December 11, 2008)

A federal court in Pennsylvania has denied a motion demanding that a website operator turn over the identity of persons who commented anonymously in response to an article posted on the website. The court held that the website had standing to assert the free speech rights of the anonymous speakers, and that the First Amendment barred the unmasking where the information sought was available from other sources.

Plaintiff Enterline sued defendant Pocono Medical Center for sexual harassment and retaliation. On October 9, 2008, the local newspaper, The Pocono Record, published an article about the lawsuit. Several people left comments to the article, some of them claiming personal knowledge of facts possibly relevant to the case.

The Lovely Pocono Mountains
The Lovely Pocono Mountains

Enterline sent a subpoena to the newspaper seeking the identity of the anonymous commenters. When the newspaper wouldn’t respond, Enterline filed a motion to compel response to the subpoena. The newspaper responded by asserting a number of arguments. Among those arguments was that disclosure of the anonymous commenters’ identities would violate those persons’ First Amendment right to speak anonymously.

Siding with the newspaper, the court denied the motion.

The court first evaluated whether the newspaper website operator even had standing (i.e., the legal right) to assert the anonymous commenters’ First Amendment right. To answer this question in the affirmative, the court found that:

  • Practical obstacles prevented the anonymous commenters from asserting rights on their own behalf. The anonymity was the very right at stake. To defend that right, the commenters would have to be identified (setting aside for a moment the question of whether the commenters could appear as Doe defendants). The evaporation of that anonymity would lead to practical difficulties, as they had indicated they worked at the hospital or otherwise had personal connections with the litigants.
  • The anonymous commenters had sufficient injury-in-fact to satisfy the constitutional “case or controversy” requirement. Looking to such cases as RIAA v. Verizon, 257 F.Supp.2d 244 (D.D.C. 2003), the court agreed with the website operator, concluding that the relationship between the website and its readers was the type of relationship allowing it to assert the First Amendment rights of the anonymous commentators.
  • The website operator could reasonably be expected to properly frame the issues and present them with the necessary adversarial zeal. There was little discussion on this point, as the plaintiff did not contest that the website operator would be an adequate advocate to assert the First Amendment rights of the anonymous visitors.

Finding that the website operator had standing to assert the rights of its anonymous commenters, the court next considered whether the identification of the anonymous speakers would violate the First Amendment. To evaluate this question, the court applied the factors set out in Doe v. 2TheMart.com, 140 F.Supp.2d 1088 (W.D. Wash. 2001).

The court found that:

  • The subpoena was not brought in bad faith or for an improper purpose,
  • The information sought related to a core claim of the plaintiff,
  • The information was directly and materially relevant to the claim,
  • but that

  • Information required to prove the plaintiff’s claims was available from other sources. Several of the anonymous commenters stated that they were, for example, co-workers of the plaintiff or of the doctor against whom the plaintiff complained. The information these anonymous posters had could be uncovered through other discovery

This case is significant inasmuch as it could be applied to a case where a blogger or any other social media website operator is asked to turn over information that would identify its anonymous users. The decision outlines the framework that a blogger would have to use to show it has the right to argue on behalf of its anonymous visitors. The case then lays out (with the help of the 2TheMart.com decision) what must be shown after that initial threshold is crossed.

Photo of the Poconos courtesy Flickr user Nicholas T under this Creative Commons license.

Government spam blocking not a violation of First Amendment right to petition

Ferrone v. Onorato, No. 07-4299, 2008 WL 4763257 (3rd Cir. October 31, 2008)

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has held that a county government did not violate a citizen’s First Amendment right to petition the government for a redress of greivences when the county set its spam filters to block all email from the citizen’s domain. There was no evidence that such blocking was done with intent to deprive the citizen of his Constitutional rights, or with reckless disregard of those rights.

The founding fathers managed Spam
The Founding Fathers managed Spam

The Allegheny County, Pennsylvania office of economic devlopment was getting a lot of email from press@rock-port.com. A county official directed that his IT staff block all future messages sent from that address. Accidentally, however, the filter was set to block all messages from the @rock-port.com domain from being sent to any county account.

Plaintiff Ferrone, who was already in a dispute with the county, tried sending 14 email messages to various county officials over the course of five weeks. Because of the spam filter settings, the messages did not get through. So Ferrone sued, claiming a violation of the First Amendment right to petition the government for a redress of grievences. The county moved for summary judgment and the court granted the motion. Ferrone sought review with the Third Circuit. On appeal, the court affirmed.

The court held that the First Amendment’s prohibition on the “abridgement” of the right to petition the government requires a plaintiff to show an actual intent on the part of the government to diminish this right. The court refused to accept Ferrone’s argument that the act of blocking email messages alone, without an examination of the government’s intent, would rise to the level of a constitutional violation. Rejecting Ferrone’s attempts to “plump” up his “specious claim” by throwing in the First Amendment, the court held that no reasonable factfinder could have found a violation of Constitutional rights.

No injunction against transferring student over violent YouTube video

O.Z. v. Board of Trustees of Long Beach Unified School Dist., 2008 WL 4396895 (C.D. Cal. Sept. 9, 2008)

While school was out of session for spring break, seventh grader O.Z. collaborated with a classmate to make a slide show video dramatizing the murder of the students’ English teacher. Though O.Z. says she did not intend to share the slide show to anyone outside her home, she posted the video to YouTube. A couple months later, while doing a vanity search on YouTube, the English teacher encountered the video. Naturally distressed by the work, the teacher notified school authorities. Administrators suspended O.Z. and transferred her to a different school for her eighth grade year.

O.Z. filed suit and sought a preliminary injunction requiring the school district to re-enroll her at her former school. She argued that the slide show was protected speech under the First Amendment, and that the school’s discipline for it was unconstitutional. The court denied the motion for preliminary injunction.

In evaluating the likelihood of O.Z.’s success on her First Amendment claim, the court applied the standard set forth in Tinker v. Des Moines Ind. Comm. School Dist., 393 U.S. 503 (1969). The Tinker test provides that discipline over student speech is appropriate if school officials reasonably conclude that the speech will “materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school.”

O.Z. argued that the slide show was merely a joke and not a true threat. But the court found that the school could reasonably forecast substantial disruption of school activities given the violent language and unusual photos comprising the video slide show. Further, the decision to transfer O.Z. served not only to discipline her, but to protect the safety of the teacher.

The fact that O.Z. created the slide show outside of school was of little import in the circumstances. Comparing the present situation with Wisniewski v. Board of Educ. of Weedsport Cent. School Dist., 494 F.3d 34 (2nd Cir. 2007) and other cases involving off-campus conduct, the court found that the slide show created a foreseeable risk of disruption within the school. Such a finding was no doubt influenced by the ability of social media platforms like YouTube to facilitate wide distribution of content.

Kentucky settles banned blogger’s First Amendment challenge to Internet filtering policy

Ed. note: This is a guest post by Greg Beck, an attorney at Public Citizen in Washington, DC. Greg works on a variety of issues at Public Citizen, mostly involving Internet free speech, anonymity, and intellectual property. He was lead counsel for Mark Nickolas in his challenge to Kentucky’s ban on blogs. [More info…]

Political blogger Mark Nickolas yesterday settled his lawsuit against Kentucky, in which he challenged the state’s policy of blocking blogs on state-owned computers. The settlement provides that Kentucky will no longer target websites for restriction just because they are blogs, and will instead treat them in the same way it treats other websites with similar content. In other words, classifying a website as a “blog” is no longer a good enough reason to ban a site on the state’s computers.

Nickolas is the owner and primary author of BluegrassReport.org, a blog focusing on Kentucky news and politics and specializing in criticism of former Governor Ernie Fletcher. In 2006, the New York Times quoted Nickolas and noted the blog in an article about Fletcher’s indictment on charges of political corruption. The next day, without warning, the state reconfigured its Webwasher filtering software to block all access to blogs on state computers.

Nickolas filed suit and, represented by Public Citizen, raised two primary arguments that the policy was unconstitutional under the First Amendment. First, he argued that the policy was adopted specifically to target his blog and therefore constituted viewpoint discrimination, the worst form of government action under the First Amendment. Aside from the suspicious timing of the policy, Nickolas relied on internal state email showing that, despite public claims to the contrary, the governor’s office had ordered the ban on blogs and had specifically requested that the URL of Nickolas’s site be added to the “blacklist.” Moreover, Nickolas obtained the declaration of the former state official charged with administering the state’s computer systems at the time the policy went into place, who was told that the decision to ban blogs came from “high up” and was designed to hide the decision to ban Nickolas’s site in “a bunch of other stuff.”

Second, Nickolas argued that, even if the ban were not aimed specifically at his site, the state nevertheless violated the First Amendment by singling out blogs for special restrictions while ignoring other sorts of websites with comparable content. State records showed that the number of hits to news and political blogs from state computers was a small fraction of the millions of hits received each day by mainstream news sites like the Lexington Herald-Leader, the New York Times, and CNN.com. The state could offer no rational explanation for its decision to focus solely on blogs while ignoring other websites reporting the same information (especially since even blogs on mainstream news sites remained accessible). Moreover, Kentucky continued to allow access to many other categories of websites that served no work-related purpose and that received more traffic than blogs, including webmail, newsgroups and message boards, sports sites, shopping sites, financial and stock-trading sites, and others.

The case was the first to challenge a state’s decision to block access to blogs on state-owned computers. The most analogous case is the Fourth Circuit’s en banc decision in Urofsky v. Gilmore, where several Virginia professors sued over a law prohibiting access on state computers to sexually explicit materials. 216 F.3d 401 (4th Cir. 2000). The professors asserted that they needed access to the materials to fulfill their research, writing, and teaching responsibilities. That assertion, however, ultimately proved fatal to the professors’ claims when the court held that, because the professors were performing these duties in their capacities as state employees rather than as private citizens speaking on issues of public concern, their First Amendment rights were not implicated. Urofsky‘s reasoning suggests that if the professors had instead relied on restrictions to their personal use of state computers, the court would have evaluated the law’s constitutionality under the Supreme Court’s decision in Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563 (1968). Pickering and a line of cases following it established a balancing test for determining the constitutionality of a government’s restrictions on its employees’ speech, weighing the employees’ First Amendment interest in access to the restricted materials against the employer’s interest in maintaining order in the workplace.

Unlike the professors in Urofsky, Nickolas did not challenge the state’s restrictions on what employees could read pursuant to their job-related responsibilities. Kentucky, like many other employers, had long allowed its employees to use state-owned computers for personal as well as work-related purposes as long as that use did not interfere with performance of job responsibilities. Pursuant to Kentucky’s policy, employees could and frequently did read online news sites, including blogs, from workplace computers. The state’s decision to block access to the blogs while still allowing access to other news sites imposed on its employees its own preferences about which sources of news were acceptable and which were not. Nickolas argued that, even if the state had the power to entirely ban personal use of workplace computers (a proposition that Nickolas did not dispute), it did not have the power to selectively allow access to only those news sites it approved as sources of news. It was simply not a proper role for government, Nickolas argued, to decide which websites were legitimate news sites and which were not.

In the settlement finalized yesterday, Kentucky reserved its right to regulate use of computers in the workplace, but agreed to do so in a viewpoint-neutral manner that treats blogs the same as equivalent non-blog websites. Although a decision on the legality of blog-banning policies will be left for another day, the case should at least cause public employers to think twice before cutting their employees off from a large and important piece of the online political discussion.

Discipline of student for personal blog post did not violate First Amendment

Post on LiveJournal blog in which student referred to administrators by a derogatory name and was intended to incite anger in administration was justification for disqualifying student from participating in upcoming election of class officers.

Doninger v. Niehoff, — F.3d —-, 2008 WL 2220680 (2nd Cir. May 29, 2008)

Toward the end of Avery Doninger’s junior year in high school in 2007, she became quite involved in planning the upcoming “Jamfest,” a battle of the bands held at her high school. After learning that school administrators were likely to postpone Jamfest, Avery collaborated with some of her classmates to raise attention concerning the postponement and to pressure the school administrators to rethink the schedule.

One of Avery’s pressure tactics was to post an entry to her LiveJournal blog in which she referred to the school administrators as “douchebags” and encouraged others to contact the school principal to “piss her off” more. Eventually, administrators discovered the blog post and decided that Avery should not be permitted to run for Senior Class Secretary.

Lewis Mills High School, where Avery Doninger attended

So her mother as guardian and next friend sued the school district alleging violation of Avery’s first amendment rights. She sought injunctive relief, asking the court to either redo the election or give Avery all the rights and privileges of the student that was duly elected as class secretary. The district court denied the preliminary injunction. Avery’s mother sought review with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. On appeal, the court affirmed the denial of the preliminary injunction.

The Second Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the motion for preliminary injunction, though the appellate court’s analysis was a bit different. Applying the standard in the seminal Tinker case (Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503 (1969)), the court held that keeping Avery out of the election was permissible. The blog post created a reasonably foreseeable risk of substantial disruption within the school.

The case is unique in that it did not deal with content created at school or under the auspices of the classroom, but rather was created on Avery’s personal time, outside of school, on her own computer. But the “off-campus character” of the posting did “not necessarily insulate [Avery] from school discipline.”

The court found it was reasonably foreseeable that Avery’s post would reach school property because the content directly pertained to school events, its intent was to get students to read and respond, and Avery knew school community members were likely to read the post. Moreover, on the point of substantial disruption, the post contained offensive language, was misleading, and did not comport with the standard of conduct expected of a school government participant.

Other coverage:

Arizona state court adopts three part test for unmasking anonymous online speakers

Test adds an additional “balancing of the competing interests” element to the Cahill test

Mobilisa, Inc. v. Doe, — P.3d —-, 2007 WL 4167007 (Ariz. App. November 27, 2007)

Plaintiff filed suit in Washington state court against an anonymous (“John Doe”) defendant which it accused of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the Stored Communications Act. Doe allegedly accessed the plaintiff’s computer system and obtained a copy of an “intimate” email which he forwarded to a number of people.

Plaintiff served a subpoena on Doe’s Arizona-based email provider, seeking to uncover Doe’s true identity. The email provider and Doe individually, through counsel, objected, but the Arizona court ordered that Doe’s identity be revealed. The court looked to the 2005 case of Doe v. Cahill which requires (1) that the anonymous party sought to be unmask be given notice of the proceedings, and (2) that the party seeking the identity of the anonymous party put forth sufficient facts to survive a motion for summary judgment.

Doe appealed the lower court’s order which required he be identified. On appeal, the Arizona Court of Appeals remanded the matter back to the trial court. It held that although the court correctly applied the two Cahill factors, it should have considered a third factor, namely, a balancing of the relative interests of the parties. Consideration of this third factor, the court held, would help ensure that the important First Amendment rights at issue in anonymous speech cases would be adequately protected.

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