ACLU of Virginia Seeks Dismissal of Judge's Libel Lawsuit Against Anonymous Internet Author

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
April 9, 1999 12:00 am

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ACLU of Virginia
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Friday, April 9, 1999

RICHMOND, VA — The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia said today it is seeking dismissal of a libel lawsuit brought by a Pennsylvania judge who claims she was defamed on the Internet by an anonymous website author.

Although both the judge and the “John Doe” defendant live in Pennsylvania, the case was filed in Loudon County, Virginia because the website is posted through America Online, Inc., whose corporate headquarters are in Virginia. While AOL is not a party to the suit, the judge’s lawyer has asked the court to issue a subpoena to AOL to surrender the name of the person who operates the website.

The ACLU is asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit on jurisdictional and First Amendment grounds and is also seeking to quash the subpoena requiring AOL to produce John Doe’s name.

The case arose when Allegheny County State Superior Court Judge Joan Orie Melvin found comments critical of her on a website entitled “Grant Street 1999.” The website author accused the judge of lobbying on behalf of an attorney seeking a judgeship.

“Shame on Orie-Melvin …,” John Doe wrote. “This is exactly the kind of misconduct by our elected officials that the residents of Allegheny County will not stand for anymore?and a good reason why judges should be held accountable for their actions and remembered at the polls at retention time.”

Kent Willis, Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia, said that the libel lawsuit goes against the nation’s strong tradition of anonymous political speech.

“The First Amendment right to sincerely criticize elected officials — and to do so anonymously — is nearly absolute,” Willis said. “Had these comments appeared on the editorial page of a newspaper, no one would be questioning them.”

But because the Internet is allowing more individuals to voice their opinions on political matters, Willis noted, public officials are striking back in ways that threaten constitutionally protected expression.

“They should just get used to it,” Willis said. “This is standard soapbox rhetoric, only now the forum is worldwide rather than a handful of people gathered in a public park.”

In addition to the important free speech issues, a critical legal question in the case centers on jurisdiction, said ACLU of Virginia Associate Director Richard Ferris, who is one of the attorneys representing John Doe.

“We will first be arguing that this case should not be filed in Virginia,” Ferris said. “It makes no sense for a Virginia court to be dealing with a dispute between two Pennsylvania residents just because the Internet provider’s corporate headquarters are located here. Will we soon be seeing cases filed in Virginia when an AOL user in China offends a public official South Africa?”

“John Doe” is represented by Ferris of the ACLU and by volunteer attorney Rod Smolla of the University of Richmond.

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