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
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.