Does the constitution protect anonymity?

Yes, the constitution protects one’s right to speak anonymously, but only to a certain extent. The question of one’s First Amendment right to speak anonymously comes up pretty often in situations where a plaintiff seeks to unmask the identity of someone who is alleged to have committed an illegal act against the plaintiff online. Most often it is a plaintiff seeking to unmask an online critic in a defamation lawsuit.

internet anonymity

In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court held in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission that a state statute prohibiting the distribution of anonymous campaign literature was unconstitutional. The court said that “an author’s decision to remain anonymous, like other decisions concerning omissions or additions to the content of a publication, is an aspect of the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment.” 514 U.S., at 342.

One would be hard pressed to overstate the importance of anonymous speech. Three and a half decades before the McIntyre decision, the Supreme Court observed that “[p]ersecuted groups and sects from time to time throughout history have been able to criticize oppressive practices and laws either anonymously or not at all.” Talley v. California, 362 U.S. 60, 64 (1960). And “[t]he loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury.” Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 373 (1976).

But free speech protection has its limits. A person does not have a First Amendment right to defame another. So when one party seeks to “de-anonymize” another using the court system, the judge must strike a balance between the plaintiff’s right to seek redress and the defendant’s interest (if any) in remaining anonymous.

Courts have come up with a variety of balancing tests. Though different courts have come up with different ways of conducting the analysis, the test always involves looking at the strength of the facts the plaintiff puts in his or her initial filing. The more likely it appears there is real defamation, for example, the less likely the anonymous speech will be protected. If the strength of those allegations gets beyond a certain tipping point, the risk of an anonymous free speech violation becomes outweighed by the need for the plaintiff to get relief for the unprotected, unlawful speech.

Evan Brown is a Chicago technology and intellectual property attorney, representing businesses and individuals in a variety of situations, including matters dealing with online anonymity and anonymous speech.

Photo credit: petter palinder under this license.

School district has to stop filtering web content

PFLAG v. Camdenton R–III School Dist., 2012 WL 510877 (W.D.Mo. Feb. 16, 2012)

Several website publishers that provide supportive resources directed at lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth filed a First Amendment lawsuit against a school district over the district’s use of internet filtering software. Plaintiffs asked the court for an injunction against the district’s alleged practice of preventing students’ access to websites that expressed a positive viewpoint toward LGBT individuals.

The court granted a preliminary injunction. It found that by using URL Blacklist software, the district (despite its assertions to the contrary) engaged in intentional viewpoint discrimination, in violation of the website publishers’ First Amendment rights. The URL Blacklist software — which relied in large part on — classified positive materials about LGBT issues within the software’s “sexuality” filter, and it put LGBT-negative materials under “religion,” which were not blocked.

It found that the plaintiffs had a fair chance of success on the merits of their First Amendment claims. The school district had claimed it was simply trying to comply with a federal law that required the blocking of content harmful to minors. But the court found that the chosen method of filtering was not narrowly tailored to meet that interest.

One may wonder whether Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act could have protected the school district in this lawsuit. After all, 47 U.S.C. 230(c)(2)(A) provides that:

No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of—

(A) any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected. . . . (Emphasis added.)

Section 230 would probably not have been much help, because the plaintiffs were seeking injunctive relief, not money damages. An old case called Mainstream Loudoun v. Bd. of Trustees of Loudoun, 24 F. Supp. 2d 552 (E.D. Va. 1998) tells us that:

[Section] 230 provides immunity from actions for damages; it does not, however, immunize [a] defendant from an action for declaratory and injunctive relief. . . . If Congress had intended the statute to insulate Internet providers from both liability and declaratory and injunctive relief, it would have said so.

One could understand the undesirability of applying Section 230 to protect filtering of this sort even without the Mainstream Loudoun holding. If Section 230 completely immunized government-operated interactive computer service providers, allowing them to engage freely in viewpoint-based filtering, free speech would suffer in obvious ways. And it would be unfortunate to subject Section 230 to this kind of analysis, whereby it would face the severe risk of being unconstitutional as applied.

Oregon media shield law did not protect blogger from having to reveal her sources

Obsidian Finance Group, LLC v. Cox, 2011 WL 5999334 (D.Or. November 30, 2011)

Plaintiff filed a defamation lawsuit against defendant, who self-identified as an “investigative blogger” and a member of the “media.” Defendant asked the court to protect her from having to turn over the identity of the sources she spoke with in connection with drafting the allegedly defamatory content. She claimed that she was covered under Oregon’s media shield law, which provides in relevant part that:

No person connected with, employed by or engaged in any medium of communication to the public shall be required by … a judicial officer … to disclose, by subpoena or otherwise … [t]he source of any published or unpublished information obtained by the person in the course of gathering, receiving or processing information for any medium of communication to the public[.]

The court gave two reasons for finding that defendant was not covered by the shield law. First, although defendant thought of herself as the “media,” the record failed to show that she was affiliated with any newspaper, magazine, periodical, book, pamphlet, news service, wire service, news or feature syndicate, broadcast station or network, or cable television system. Thus, according to the court, she was not entitled to the protections of the law in the first instance.

Second, even if defendant were otherwise entitled to those protections, another part of the statute specifically provides that “[t]he provisions of [the shield law] do not apply with respect to the content or source of allegedly defamatory information, in [a] civil action for defamation wherein the defendant asserts a defense based on the content or source of such information.” Because this case was a civil action for defamation, defendant could not rely on the media shield law.

Employee’s Facebook status update was protected by the First Amendment

Mattingly v. Milligan, 2011 WL 5184283 (E.D.Ark. November 1, 2011)

Plaintiff worked in the county clerk’s office. Her old boss, whom she had supported in the election, lost. Her new boss (the newly-elected county clerk) began cleaning house and laid off some of the staff. Plaintiff survived that round of cuts, but lamented those terminations in a Facebook status update. Empathetic comments from county residents ensued.

The new boss found out about the status update and the comments. So he fired plaintiff. She sued, alleging that the termination violated her right to free speech. The boss moved for summary judgment, but the court denied the motion, sending the case to trial.

Here is some of the relevant Facebook content:

Plaintiff’s status update: So this week not going so good bad stuff all around.

Friend’s comment: Will be praying. Speak over those bad things positively.

Plaintiff’s comment: I am trying my heart goes out to the ladies in my office that were told by letter they were no longer needed…. It’s sad.

* * *

Friend’s comment: He’s making a mistake, but I knew he would, too bad….

* * *

Friend’s comment: I can’t believe a letter would be the manner of delivering such a message! I’m with the others…they will find some thing better and tell them this is an opportunity and not a closed door. Prayers for you and friends.

* * *

Friend’s comment: How could you expect anything else from [defendant], he was an…well nevermind.

Courts addressing claims by public employees who contend that they have been discharged for exercising their right to free speech must employ a two-step inquiry: First, the court must determine whether the speech may be described as “speech on a matter of public concern.” If so, the second step involves balancing the employee’s right to free speech against the interests of the public employer.

In this case, the court found the speech to be on a matter of public concern because:

  • the statements were made in a “public domain”
  • those who saw the statements (many of whom were residents of the county) understood them to be about terminations in the clerk’s office
  • some of the comments contained criticism of the termination decision
  • six constituents of the new clerk called his office to complain
  • the press and media had covered the situation

As for the second step in the analysis, namely, balancing the employee’s right to free speech against the interests of the public employer, the court did not even undertake a balancing test, as there simply was no evidence that the status update and the comments disrupted the operations of the clerk’s office.

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