The First Amendment right to anonymous free speech on the internet is not absolute and can be trumped by a plaintiff's need for discovery to redress wrongs. Cases of Interest >  Cyberlaw >  Privacy

Doe I and Doe II v Individuals whose true names are unknown

Doe I and Doe II v Individuals whose true names are unknown
561 F. Supp. 2d 249 (2008)

Plaintiffs Jane Doe I and Jane Doe II were Yale law students. They brought an action for defamatory, harassing, and threatening statements allegedly made on an “AutoAdmit.com” message board by unknown individuals using 39 pseudonyms. AutoAdmit is a public internet discussion board used for postings about undergraduate, graduate, and law schools. The site draws up to 1 million visitors per month. Anyone who accesses the site through the webpage can view the message boards, and anyone who wishes to post or respond to a message may do so by registering under a real or assumed name. The message threads are searchable by key words through any internet search engine.

On January 31, 2007, an anonymous user posted a message that linked to a picture of Doe II with a message encouraging others to “rate” her. The messages responding to this post contained inappropriate and sexually explicit comments. Some of these comments appeared to come from her fellow classmates. The harassing and defamatory comments continued through March of 2007, including one instance when Doe II and a Yale law school faculty member were contacted directly through e-mail about Doe II’s father’s alleged criminal history. “AK47” made one of the posts at issue around this time falsely stating “[], Stephen Reynolds, Doe II, and me: GAY LOVERS.” In May 2007 an anonymous poster claimed he/she had sent Doe II’s future employer the defamatory messages. In June 2007, Doe I and Doe II filed this complaint, alleging libel, invasion of privacy, negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and copyright violations. Doe II's complaint described the harm and results she experienced because of the comments about her on AutoAdmit, including treatment for severe emotional distress, interference with her educational progress, reputational harm, and pecuniary harm.

News of the lawsuit became a hot topic on the AutoAdmit message board, with AK47 chiming in about the merits of the case and posting more defamatory comments wondering whether posters were “allowed to use Doe II's name in thread's anymore” and the statement “Women named Jill and Doe II should be raped.” AK47 also started a thread entitled “Inflicting emotional distress on cheerful girls named Doe II.” Upon news of a subpoena, AK47 threatened to create a website “tracking” the litigation, including posting the real names of the girl and publicizing the allegations, unless he were dropped from the lawsuit.

Procedural Posture:
Doe I and Doe II issued a subpoena duces tecum to SBC Internet Services (now AT&T Internet Services) to identify the subscriber using a particular IP address. The anonymous postings at issue had come from the address under the pseudonym “AK47.” After being notified by AT&T about the subpoena, the subscriber moved to quash it using the name John Doe 21. John Doe 21 also requested to proceed anonymously in the matter.

Does the First Amendment right to freedom of anonymous speech on the internet trump the need for a plaintiff to use discovery to redress wrongs?

Holding: No

First, Doe II’s copyright claim is based on the fact that she owns registered copyrights in her photographs and they were posted without permission on AutoAdmit. This claim is the only federal claim. The court addressed John Doe 21’s argument that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the case because the copyright claim was “weak” and “manufactured,” determining that it could exercise supplemental jurisdiction because it had original jurisdiction over “all civil actions arising under the ... laws ... of the United States;” 28 U.S.C. § 1331; and may exercise supplemental jurisdiction over state law claims “that are so related to claims in the action within such original jurisdiction that they form part of the same case or controversy under Article III of the United States Constitution.” The court determined that since it properly had jurisdiction over the copyright claim, which arose from the same case or controversy as the various state law tort and statutory claims, the Court also had subject matter jurisdiction as these state law claims, which arise from a “common nucleus of operative fact” namely, the alleged harassment of Doe I and Doe II on AutoAdmit.

Next John Doe 21 tried to argue that the case was moot as the information had already been turned over to AT&T; however, the court determined that it could still order the information returned and suppressed, therefore eliminating the mootness claim.

John Doe 21 requested the court quash the subpoena because he claims disclosure of his identity would be a violation of his First Amendment right to engage in anonymous speech. The court said that the First Amendment generally protects anonymous speech, including speech on the internet. However, the court clarified that “the right to speak anonymously, on the internet or otherwise, is not absolute and does not protect speech that otherwise would be unprotected.” The court explained that while John Doe 21 does have a right to anonymous free speech, this right must also be balanced with an individual’s need for discovery to redress wrongs. It applied a four-part balancing test in which courts should consider: (1) whether the plaintiff has undertaken efforts to notify the anonymous posters that they are the subject of a subpoena and withheld action to afford the fictitiously named defendants a reasonable opportunity to file and serve opposition to the application; (2) whether the plaintiff has identified and set forth the exact statements purportedly made by each anonymous poster that the plaintiff alleges constitutes actionable speech, the specificity of the discovery request and whether there is an alternative means of obtaining the information called for in the subpoena, and whether there is a central need for the subpoenaed information to advance the plaintiffs' claims; (3) the subpoenaed party's expectation of privacy at the time the online material was posted; and (4) most importantly, whether the plaintiffs have made an adequate showing as to their claims against the anonymous defendant. For this element, the court adopted a standard that “strikes the most appropriate balance between the First Amendment rights of the defendant and the interest in the plaintiffs of pursuing their claims, ensuring that the plaintiff is not merely seeking to harass or embarrass the speaker or stifle legitimate criticism,” by holding that a plaintiff must make a concrete showing as to each element of a claim to establish a prima facie case against the defendant.

Here, the court determined that Doe II could meet the four factors because: (1) the notice of the subpoenas were posted on AutoAdmit in January 2008, allowing plenty of time for responses; (2) Doe II identified specific statements made by AK47, sought only the information needed for the critical part of her case, and there was no other way to obtain the information; (3) John Doe 21’s expectation of privacy was low, considering he agreed with AT&T’s Privacy Policy which clearly states it would comply with “court orders, subpoenas, or other legal or regulatory requirements.”; and (4) Doe II could establish the elements to make a prima facie libel case against John Doe 21. The court therefore refused to quash the subpoena, finding that the balancing test tipped in the favor of plaintiff’s interest in pursuing discovery and outweighed John Doe 21’s First Amendment right to speak anonymously on the internet.

The court also addressed John Doe 21’s request to proceed anonymously in the suit. The court said that generally, parties to a lawsuit must identify themselves. A party may proceed anonymously only after demonstrating “a substantial privacy right which outweighs the customary and constitutionally embedded presumption of openness in judicial proceedings.” The court found that here John Doe 21’s speculation that he could suffer ridicule or lose employment, even if true, would still only qualify as social stigma and not the special kinds of harm needed to proceed anonymously. The court therefore denied the motion to proceed anonymously.

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