HACKENSACK, N.J. — A judge has dismissed a lawsuit against a Bergen County man whose Internet site let anonymous writers criticize public officials in his town.
Superior Court Judge Mark M. Russello ruled yesterday that Web site operator Stephen Moldow should not be held liable for allowing the sometimes crude accusations on the "Eye on Emerson" Web site.
"They were hoping I'd roll over and shut the site down," Moldow said. "They never thought I'd fight back and defend my right and other people's rights to do this."
The judge cited the importance of allowing free discussion about politics. He wrote that if people such as Moldow have "to face the prospect of a lawsuit from any person who is criticized in that forum ... then this would indeed discourage the creation of Web sites."
But more litigation is likely.
"It is far from over," said Jack Darakjy, the attorney representing the plaintiffs. "We will appeal the decision. If we need to, our clients are prepared to take this all the way to the Supreme Court."
The lawsuit was brought in July by Borough Councilwoman Gina Calogero; her husband, Lawrence Campagna, who is the local GOP chairman; Councilman Vincent Donato; and former council candidate Eric Obernauer, all of whom are Republicans. They sought damages, claiming defamation, harassment and intentional infliction of emotional distress. They argued that constitutional protections of free speech do not shield slander or libel.
"What Moldow did may be technically legal, but that doesn't make it morally right," Calogero said. "The Web site has brought embarrassment to Emerson, and Moldow has the power to clean it up but chooses not to do so."
Some anonymous and unsubstantiated messages in the site's chat room accused public officials of extramarital affairs, shady business dealings and urinating in a swimming pool. One user posted the name and phone number of a council member's employer, urging residents to call.
The suit named as defendants Moldow and 60 John and Jane Does who posted anonymous messages. The officials subpoenaed an Internet company seeking the names of the posters.
Russello quashed the subpoena, but largely on technical grounds, questioning whether the 60 were properly notified of the legal proceedings.
"The right to anonymous speech is not something new," attorney Richard Ravin, who represents 18 of the defendants, told The Star-Ledger of Newark for today's editions. "That right goes to the very founding of our Constitution. Some of the Federalist Papers were written anonymously."
The case is being closely watched by free-speech advocates, lawyers and Webmasters across the country. Paul Alan Levy, an attorney who participated in the case on behalf of the Washington, D.C.-based Public Interest Citizens Litigation Group, said the ruling sent a simple message to the politicians: "You've got to be kidding."
"This is a case brought by public officials against their constituents for telling them they are doing a bad job," he told The Record of Hackensack for today's editions. "There is little in here that was threatening. Nasty and mean, definitely. But if you are a public official and you can't stand the heat, you should get out of the kitchen."