Court orders Twitter to identify anonymous users

Defamation plaintiffs’ need for requested information outweighed any impact on Doe defendants’ free speech right to tweet anonymously.

Plaintiff company and its CEO sued several unknown defendants who tweeted that plaintiff company encouraged domestic violence and misogyny and that the CEO visited prostitutes. The court allowed plaintiffs to serve subpoenas on Twitter to seek the identity of the unknown Twitter users. Twitter would not comply with the subpoenas unless and until the court ruled on whether the production of information would violate the users’ First Amendment rights.

The court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered Twitter to turn over identifying information about the unknown users. In reaching this decision, the court applied the Ninth Circuit analysis for unmasking anonymous internet speakers set out in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, 591 F.3d. 1126 (9th Cir. 2009). The court found that the requested discovery raised the possibility of “arguable first amendment infringement,” so it continued its analysis by weighing the balance between the aggrieved plaintiffs’ interests with the anonymous defendants’ free speech rights.

The Perry balancing test places a burden on the party seeking discovery to show that the information sought is rationally related to a compelling governmental interest and that the requested discovery is the least restrictive means of obtaining the desired information.

In this case, the court found that the subpoenas were narrowly tailored to plaintiffs’ need to uncover the identities of the anonymous defendants so that plaintiffs could serve process. It also found that the “nature” of defendants’ speech weighed in favor of enforcing the subpoena. The challenged speech went “beyond criticism into what appear[ed] to be pure defamation, ostensibly unrelated to normal corporate activity.”

Music Group Macao Commercial Offshore Ltd. v. Does I-IX, 2015 WL 75073 (N.D. Cal., January 6, 2015).

Tweet served as evidence of initial interest confusion in trade dress case

The maker of KIND bars sued the maker of Clif bars alleging that the packaging of the Clif MOJO bar infringes the trade dress used for KIND bars. Plaintiff moved for a preliminary injunction, but the court denied the motion. But in its analysis, the court considered the relevance of a Twitter user’s impression of the products. Plaintiff submitted a tweet as evidence in which the user wrote, “I was about to pick up one of those [Clif MOJO bars] because I thought it was a Kind Bar at the vitamin shop ….” The court found that this type of initial interest confusion was actionable and therefore the tweet supported plaintiff’s argument.

KIND LLC v. Clif Bar & Company, 2014 WL 2619817 (S.D.N.Y. June 12, 2014)

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago, advising clients on matters dealing with trademark protection and enforcement, technology, the internet and new media. Contact him.

Lawyer’s tweet about case was not defamatory

Plaintiff sued an attorney and his law firm for defamation over a tweet the attorney posted about one of his cases that read as follows:

[Plaintiff] runs an organization for the benefit of its officers and directors, not shareholders and employees. The RICO suit was not frivolous. The 500K lawsuit is frivolous, however, so buyer be wary.

(Defenant used Twitlonger to account for the number of characters over 140.) The trial court dismissed the defamation lawsuit on an anti-SLAPP motion. Plaintiff sought review with the Court of Appeal of California. The court affirmed the dismissal.

It found that the tweet was nonactionable opinion, holding that “deprecatory statements regarding the merits of litigation are ‘nothing more than the predictable opinion of one side to the lawsuit’ and cannot be the basis for a defamation claim.” Further, insofar as the tweet asserted “[plaintiff] runs an organization for the benefit of its officers and directors, not shareholders and employees,” the attorney was stating his subjective opinion with respect to corporate governance at the plaintiff company. Accordingly, the tweet was not actionable.

Getfugu, Inc. v. Patton Boggs LLP, 2013 WL 4494952 (Cal.App. 2 Dist. August 21, 2013)

Social media angle on SCOTUS healthcare decision

I’ve seen three interesting social media issues arise in the hours following the Supreme Court’s decision this morning on Obamacare:

1. Premature enunciation and the ensuing bruhaha

In a rush to report on the extremely complex decision, CNN’s website briefly stated that the healthcare law had been overturned. [Screenshot] Folks on Twitter were quick to pounce, and it still seems to be kind of flying under the radar that FOX News’ side-scrolling ticker got it wrong too. The comparisons to Dewey Defeats Truman are obvious. The picture below by @garyhe captures this notion visually.

But there are a couple important differences in modern and social media versus the 1940s.

Because of the faster means to get the word out, there is even more pressure for a media outlet to be the first. (The same kind of pressure, felt by a humble blogger like me to be among the first to analyze the issues herein is making it difficult for me to type right.) And members of mainstream media are not just competing against other mainstream media participants. As @roncoleman tweeted, “[t]he central role of @SCOTUSblog in this discussion is the truly historical event occurring today.” (@SCOTUSblog’s coverage of the decision was driven largely by the work of 81-year-old Lyle Denniston.)

And it’s easy to forget that mistakes in reporting can easily be undone. Unlike the paper in the Dewey Defeats Truman situation, which had to literally stop the presses, reset the type, print out new stacks of papers and physically deliver them hours later, the CNN website was changed immediately with little human effort. And the fact that CNN got it wrong couldn’t have harmed anyone, given that there were millions of commentators on Twitter to instantly lampoon it, thereby drawing attention to the error.

2. It’s not just law professors who can be constitutional scholars

@jonathanwpeters observed the profundity of how the discourse on Twitter had become erudite by simply noting: “June 28, 2012: the day that “Commerce Clause” trended on Twitter.” But maybe that eruditeness is just a facade. @jbtaylor gives us a warning: “Brace yourself. Everyone on Twitter is about to become a Constitutional scholar.”

3. Everyone’s a comedian and all the world’s a comedy club

Probably the best part of the social media response to the decision is the humor. Here are a few of my favorite tweets that look at the farcical side of this:

  • “Remember when John Roberts botched the President’s swearing-in on Inauguration Day? I think they’re all good now.” (by @johnsberman)
  • “I felt a sudden disturbance in the Law, as if millions of nascent law review articles cried out, and were suddenly silenced.” (by @timhwang)
  • “Tea Party just turned into a massive kegger as the last spare change has gone to buy all the beer left in St. Louis ‪#wow‬ (by @mimizhusband)
  • “Now that that’s over who wants to grab a Coke and watch some porn” – Clarence Thomas (by @platypusjones)
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