Jacqui Cheng reports:
US courts have historically looked on anonymous bloggers and commenters with a sympathetic eye, but there are exceptions. A Tennessee judge denied a blogger’s motion to quash a subpoena to reveal his identity last week, and he also denied a motion to dismiss the case. With few other options available to him (or her), the blogger in Swartz v. Does looks likely to be revealed.
Even on the Internet, anonymity is never absolute… especially when you’re accusing someone else of arson and tax evasion.
It all started when a “prominent” couple in Old Hickory, Tennessee found themselves the target of an entire blog called Stop Swartz. Donald and Terry Keller Swartz were involved in local politics and maintained an active real estate business, in addition to operating a halfway house for those recovering from substance abuse.
The blog in question, however, painted the Swartzes in a very unflattering light—the anonymous blogger(s) heavily criticized their real estate activities and, among other things, accused the couple of committing arson, failing to report property sales in order to evade taxes, and of being drug addicts themselves.
Read more on Ars Technica.
Related court documents are available on the Media Law Resource Center.
In addition to the defamation claims, the Swartz’s also allege that the “John Does” invaded their privacy:
by republishing on October 25, 2007 a posting from the website “Craigslist.org” in which John Doe #3 disclosed that Plaintiff Terry Swartz is an “ex-addict.”
by publishing a statement on December 8, 2007 encouraging others in effect to stalk the Plaintiffs; to wit, “When you see a Swartz, no matter how trivial it may seem, leave a comment. Extra points if you observe them outside the Village. This serves two purposes: First, it helps us all to keep tabs on Don and Terry and to know what they are up to. Second, it sends a clear message to Don and Terry that their actions are not being ignored…. We will tolerate their crap no longer.”
On March 13, 2009 the court heard John Doe #1’s Motion to Quash Subpoena and for Protective Order. The hearing was videotaped:
On August 25, 2009 the court heard oral arguments for Defendant John Doe #1’s Motion to Dismiss and reconsideration of Defendant’s Motion to Quash Subpoena and for Protective Order in the case Swartz v. John Does. The hearing included testimony from both plaintiffs. The video is in two parts, below:
Although Cheng opines “that If Doe actually gets unmasked, it could set a precedent for future cases regarding anonymous speech,” I see nothing particularly precedent-setting about this case other than on a local level. The importance I see is that the court adopted the Dendrite standard for determining whether to unmask an anonymous blogger and gave a good summary of its reasoning and how it applied the standards. Given that the court could have chosen other standards, the selection of the Dendrite standard — a standard higher than the one used in the “Skanks of NYC” case — is both significant and encouraging.
Sam Bayard of the Citizen Media Law Project provides a summary of the issues and developments in Swartz v. Does.
Photo credit: “anonymity” by kitakitts, Flickr, used under Creative Commons License.