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Anonymous online critics try to block order to reveal identities

By The Associated Press,
freedomforum.org staff
10.24.01

A lawyer for the authors of an anonymous Web site criticizing the University of Louisiana-Monroe is seeking to block a federal magistrate's order to reveal his clients' identities.

The magistrate's order misapplied the Communications Decency Act, which is meant to curb pornography, not stifle free speech, attorney Michael Rhymes said in documents filed late yesterday.

Richard Baxter, the university's vice president for external affairs, wants the names of those behind the site Truth at ULM so he can file a defamation lawsuit. U.S. Magistrate James Kirk also ordered Homestead Technologies Inc. to provide computer logs of all people who have posted, published or provided any content to the site.

The Internet site has called the university administration incompetent and accused top officials of lying. But Rhymes said the federal Communication Decency Act "does not cover the facts alleged by Mr. Baxter and thus the court does not have subject matter jurisdiction."

Baxter's motion asking for the information was filed last week in federal court. Initially, no one filed opposition, and the order was signed Oct. 18. It was made public Oct. 22. Baxter declined comment about the court order.

Rhymes further contends that the order should not be enforced because Homestead did not fight the university's complaint.

Homestead spokeswoman Jody Kramer said the company's membership and privacy agreement with its customers clearly spells out that Homestead will abide by all court orders.

"We deal with a lot of these," Kramer said. "It is an absolutely stated policy that we will cooperate with the authorities."

Kramer said the company had not received the order, but would inform the site operators as soon as it did, as a matter of policy.

In his petition, Baxter cited examples of what he called "extreme, outrageous and malicious content," including allegations that university officials misused funds and lied.

Attempts to get Web hosting companies to reveal their customers' true identities are not unusual. Most of the actions concern unfounded rumors that cause stock prices to tumble or statements that damage reputations.

America Online, the world's largest online service provider, received 475 civil subpoenas last year, a 40% increase from 1999.

Homestead's Kramer said there have been some cases in which a subscriber obtained a court order blocking the company from giving out information. The company abides by such orders, she said.

In California last August, a state judge sided with two anonymous contributors to a Yahoo! message board. According to the Electronic Freedom Frontier Foundation, Judge Neil Cabrinha of Santa Clara County Superior Court found that the critics’ right to anonymous speech outweighed the claim by Pre-Paid Legal Services, Inc., of Oklahoma to reveal the identities of the posters.


Update
Anonymous university Web critic steps forward
Internet service provider says attorneys may soon provide more information about other people who posted data on Truth at ULM. 06.03.02

Related

Communications Decency Act e-mail provision cited in private lawsuit

A provision of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, much of which was struck down by the Supreme Court, is still very much alive and is being cited in a lawsuit in federal court in Manhattan, according to a report in The New York Times. 04.21.00

N.J. appeals panel orders Internet identity disclosed
ACLU, Public Citizen say decisions in two cases are first by any state appellate court to provide guidelines for breaching online anonymity. 07.12.01

N.J. politicians sue Web site operator over anonymous postings
Plaintiffs claim comments on site’s message board damaged their reputations, but defendant says notes weren’t criminal or defamatory. 08.07.01

Defamation plaintiff may be able to unmask online foe
By David L. Hudson Jr. Pennsylvania judge refuses to apply other courts’ heightened standards designed to protect anonymous speech online. 01.27.06

'Outing' online John Does
Targets of Internet rantings are increasingly — and successfully — suing to expose and punish anonymous writers. 04.05.01

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