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Judge asks court to reveal identity of anonymous online critic

From The Associated Press
06.30.00

PITTSBURGH — Attorneys for an anonymous online critic of a judge argued yesterday that forcing critics like their client to be identified would hurt free speech.

But attorneys for the judge who was criticized argued it would only make people think twice before they lie anonymously on the Web.

The issue is uniquely tied to the Internet. For centuries, Americans have anonymously circulated pamphlets and other writings to express constitutionally protected thought without fear of repercussions. But some have used anonymity to libel their enemies without getting caught.

People who post anonymous messages on the Web can be tracked through their registrations for Internet service and their computers. For one of the first times, judges are being forced to decide whether writers of potentially damaging words should be allowed to remain anonymous.

Pennsylvania Superior Court Judge Joan Orie Melvin alleges in a defamation lawsuit that the author or authors of a Web site called Grant Street '99 libeled her by alleging she lobbied for a friend to be named as an Allegheny County judge. Melvin denies the charges.

Because she did not know the name of the critic or critics, Melvin named "John Does" as defendants.

Under the law, Melvin's attorneys have to show that the allegations were wrong and that the online critic or critics acted with malice or reckless disregard for the truth when making them.

Robert Lampl, one of Melvin's attorneys, said he would have to question the John Does to prove malice or recklessness.

But Susan Yohe, representing the Does, said there is no reason they should have to reveal their identities when it is still unclear whether the judge suffered actual harm because of the allegations.

She said Melvin's lawyers should have to prove actual economic harm before they are allowed to try to learn the Does' identities. Releasing their identities earlier, she said, would discourage other anonymous critics from making political statements protected by the First Amendment.

Lampl argued that only people who libel others online have anything to fear from having their identities revealed. Judges will not force people whose words are not libelous to reveal their identities, he argued.

Allesheny County Judge R. Stanton Wettick gave no indication when he would rule but said he did not agree with Yohe's argument that Melvin should have to prove financial harm.

"We all grew up with parents who said if you have a chance to make a million dollars at the cost of your reputation, don't do it," the judge said.

Yohe has said the allegations were harmless because it would not be unethical or illegal for Melvin to lobby for a friend. Lampl said if the critics believe that to be the case, they should come forward.

Because an America Online user authored the Web site, Melvin originally sued in Loudoun County, Va., where AOL is based.

Loudoun County Circuit Judge Thomas Horne dismissed that suit, ruling that just because AOL is based there does not mean Virginia courts are open to lawsuits involving worldwide Internet communications.


Update
Judge's lawyers to learn identities of anonymous online critics
But court says critics' names won't be revealed publicly unless case goes to trial. 11.17.00

Related

AOL reveals identity of subscriber who operated Web site critical of paper

Orange County Register says it's not stifling free speech but protecting its employees from annoying and defaming e-mail. 07.22.98

Cyber-liberties attorney Ann Beeson fights for free speech on the Net
'You cannot have a functioning democracy without the right to freedom of speech,' she says. 05.26.99

Online publishing forces evolution of defamation law
By David L. Hudson Jr. Under what circumstances should an ISP be liable for defamatory statements posted by a third party? 05.12.99

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