Venkat Balasubramani discusses a case in which the identities of everyone who posted in a forum were requested as part of discovery:
Concerned Citizens for Crystal City, et al. v. City of Crystal City, et al., No. ED 94135 (Mo. Ct. App.; Oct. 26, 2010)
As background, the case concerns a group and forum created to discuss a public proposal by the city. The proposal passed, and the citizens’ group filed suit. The redevelopment firm (Wings) joined the lawsuit as a defendant and as Venkat explains:
In the course of discovery, Wings sent over a request for production to Ginniver seeking:
a complete copy, in native format, of all information in [Ginniver’s] possession that had been posted on the domain http://www.clearpillar.com; a complete copy, in native format, of all databases in [Ginniver’s] possession related to any forum that [had] appeared on http://www.clearpillar.com, with all copies to include, among other things, the IP addresses related to each post, member names and email addresses, and the text of private messages on the database.
Nothing like a fishing expedition, huh? You have citizens discussing an issue of public concern, and the defendant wants everyone’s name and information? Paging the First Amendment to Aisle 4…
If you expected the court to just smack down the request, you expected wrong. Read more from Venkat on Eric Goldman’s blog and try to wade through the appellate court decision.
Significantly, Venkat writes:
Identification of anonymous posters: Although the court alludes to the standards for when a litigant can identify an online poster, and hints that First Amendment interests are at stake here, it’s unlikely that defendants would satisfy any of the standards for identifying all of the posters. This case involves citizen communications criticizing the government’s activity, and the First Amendment interests are therefore particularly strong. Even if it did not announce the applicable test, it would have been nice for the court to recognize this, and send a message that a fishing expedition seeking to identify all of the posters was inappropriate.
This case looks like a good candidate for intervention by one of the many public interest groups who have fought (and won) battles around online anonymity.