Monday, September 21, 2009

Calif. Judge Allows Mask of Anonymous Bloggers to Slip a Little

MasksImage by Rickydavid via Flickr
Sacramento County (Calif.) Superior Court Judge Shelleyanne Chang last week upheld the right of bloggers who comment anonymously to protect their identities, barely.

In  Calvin Chang v. Regents of University of California, Judge Chang largely accepted the First Amendment argument of counsel for blogger David Greenwald of The People's Vanguard of Davis blog regarding unnamed commenters, but carved out an exception that would allow the bloggers' identities to become known if  the plaintiff were to retain an independent third party to conduct an Internet address trace to confirm whether those who posted were the individuals whom the plaintiff thought they were.

In an article entitled "Former UC Davis Officer Claims Violation of Settlement Agreement," Greenwald chronicled a dispute by the plaintiff, a former UC Davis police officer, against his ex-employer that alleges harassment and breach of the settlement accord. The article was followed by a series of  comments by readers, some of whom did not disclose their identity.

Plaintiff's counsel subpoenaed Google, the Vanguard's former host, concerning seven anonymous postings that the plaintiff believed may have originated from his former supervisor and were, therefore, arguably relevant to his client's case. The subpoena sought names, email addresses, and log-in data. Greenwald's counsel accused the plaintiff of engaging in a "fishing expedition" intended to intimidate critics of the plaintiff and/or his lawsuit.

Judge Chang (no relation to plaintiff) refused to order Greenwald to unmask the anonymous commenters. With some exceptions, such as in defamation cases, courts to date generally have supported efforts of speakers, writers and bloggers to remain anonymous.  The U.S. Supreme Court, in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, 514 U.S. 334, 341-42 (1995), said authors were free to decide whether to reveal their true identities.

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