Parkmerced Investors v. Does 1-18
Moving to protect the free speech rights of anonymous online posters, the ACLU Foundation of Northern California filed a motion on Nov. 19, 2008 asking a San Francisco federal court to reject two landlords' attempt to require a website to identify people who had posted anonymous criticisms of their apartment complexes. The motion was jointly filed with Public Citizen. We further sought to have the landlords' entire complaint dismissed as a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation).
Parkmerced Investors Properties and co-plaintiff Stellar Larkspur Partners filed suit in federal court on Sept. 23, 2008 against a group of "Doe"defendants who criticized apartment conditions on the ratings site www.apartmentratings.com. The landlords then obtained a subpoena, for which no prior court approval is required, ordering the website to reveal the identities of the 18 anonymous posters. The website notified the posters of the subpoena and one of those posters then contacted ACLU Foundation of Northern California for help.
Anonymous Internet Speech Protected
The ACLU Foundation of Northern California and Public Citizen's motion, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, argued that the First Amendment protects anonymous Internet speech and that under well-established law, courts may not order identification of anonymous Internet speakers unless plaintiffs can provide enough evidence to show that they have a meritorious claim. Until the court finds that plaintiffs have been able to make that showing, the First Amendment prohibits revealing the identities of anonymous online speakers. In this case we argued that, although the plaintiffs claimed the posters were competitors trying to hurt their business, they had offered no evidence to support that claim and that, in fact, our client was actually a tenant of one of the apartment buildings.
After filing the motion, the plaintiffs informed us that apartmentratings.com had mistakenly notified our client that his/her postings were covered by the subpoena's request for identifying information. After receiving assurances that our client's identity was not being sought, we withdrew the motion.
Fear of Retaliation
Free speech on the Internet is chilled if landlords, employers, or businesses can use a lawsuit, which may be completely lacking in merit, as a vehicle for revealing the identifies of their critics. The fear of retaliation is enough to silence future criticism. The ACLU Foundation of Northern California remains committed to defending the rights of anonymous Internet speakers.