Can Internet User Protect His Or Her Identity Under The First Amendment?

As employment litigators, we are finding ourselves dealing more and more with Internet related issues, such as an employer’s right to monitor employees’ computer usage, and an employee’s privacy rights to information posted on the Internet. A recent case, Krinsky v. Doe 6, __ Cal.App.4th ___ (Feb. 6, 2008), (click here for the opinion) dealt with the issue whether someone who posts anonymously on the Internet can protect his or her identity under the First Amendment. While not directly related to employment law, the ruling's effects could be felt by companies and should be read by anyone dealing with human resource issues in California.

Lisa Krinsky, a corporate officer of a Florida company, SFBC International, Inc., filed a lawsuit against 10 unknown individuals for defamation and intentional interference of contractual relations. She claimed the 10 unknown individuals (sued as Does 1-10) posted scathing attacks about her and her company on Yahoo!’s message board. Krinsky attempted to discover the identity of 10 of the pseudonymous posters by serving a subpoena on the custodian of records of the message-board host, Yahoo!, Inc. (Yahoo!) in Sunnyvale, California.

Yahoo! notified Defendant “Doe 6” that it would comply with the subpoena in 15 days unless a motion to quash or other legal objection was filed. Doe 6 then moved in California superior court to quash the subpoena on the grounds that (1) plaintiff had failed to state a claim sufficient to overcome his First Amendment rights for either defamation or interference with a contractual or business relationship, and (2) plaintiff's request for injunctive relief was an invalid prior restraint. Doe 6 moved to quash the subpoena in California in an attempt to hide his identity, but the trial court denied the motion. Doe 6 appealed this decision, contending that he had a First Amendment right to speak anonymously on the Internet.

The appellate court discussed the fact that there is never really true anonymity on the Internet. Moreover, Yahoo! warns users that their identities can be traced, and that it will reveal their identities if legally required to do so. The parties in the case agreed that the enforceability of the subpoena should be determined by weighing Doe 6's First Amendment right to speak anonymously against plaintiff's interest in discovering Doe 6’s identity in order to pursue her claim.

The appellate court’s decision ultimately turned on the issue whether the statements posted by the defendant were in fact defamatory. The analysis begins with examining whether plaintiff can establish with supporting evidence that a libelous statement has been made. If plaintiff can establish this, then the writer’s message has no First Amendment protections.

The California appeals court, in applying Florida defamation legal standards due to the fact that this is where the Plaintiff filed the underlying case, stated:
A publication is libelous per se in Florida "if, when considered alone without innuendo: (1) it charges that a person has committed an infamous crime; (2) it charges a person with having an infectious disease; (3) it tends to subject one to hatred, distrust, ridicule, contempt, or disgrace; or (4) it tends to injure one in his trade or profession. Plaintiff maintains that Doe 6 implied that she was dishonest by calling her a "crook" and asserted that she had a "fake medical degree," thereby accusing plaintiff of being dishonest or at least of engaging in conduct incompatible with her employment. He also subjected her to ridicule and disgrace and damaged her reputation by stating that she had "poor feminine hygiene."
(citations and footnote omitted)
After examining the statements posted on the Yahoo! message board, the court found that the statements were not defamatory:
We likewise conclude that the language of Doe 6's posts, together with the surrounding circumstances -- including the recent public attention to SFBC's practices and the entire "SFCC" message-board discussion over a two-month period -- compels the conclusion that the statements of which plaintiff complains are not actionable. Rather, they fall into the category of crude, satirical hyperbole which, while reflecting the immaturity of the speaker, constitute protected opinion under the First Amendment.
As to plaintiff’s interference with contractual/business relationships claim, the appellate court held that this also failed:
As to Doe 6, it is clear from the pleading that the business tort alleged in the interference cause of action is based entirely on the "defamatory remarks" that were protected speech under the First Amendment. Casting the defamation claim in terms of interference with a business relationship does not save plaintiff's cause of action.
The appellate court concluded:
We thus conclude that Doe 6's online messages, while unquestionably offensive and demeaning to plaintiff, did not constitute assertions of actual fact and therefore were not actionable under Florida's defamation law. Because plaintiff stated no viable cause of action that overcame Doe 6's First Amendment right to speak anonymously, the subpoena to discover his identity should have been quashed. (fn. Omitted)
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