A federal appeals court has issued an alarming ruling that significantly erodes the Constitution’s protections for anonymous speakers—and simultaneously hands law enforcement a near unlimited power to unmask them.
The Ninth Circuit’s decision in U.S. v. Glassdoor, Inc. is a significant setback for the First Amendment. The ability to speak anonymously online without fear of being identified is essential because it allows people to express controversial or unpopular views. Strong legal protections for anonymous speakers are needed so that they are not harassed, ridiculed, or silenced merely for expressing their opinions.
In Glassdoor, the court’s ruling ensures that any grand jury subpoena seeking the identities of anonymous speakers will be valid virtually every time. The decision is a recipe for disaster precisely because it provides little to no legal protections for anonymous speakers.
EFF applauds Glassdoor for standing up for its users’ First Amendment rights in this case and for its commitment to do so moving forward. Yet we worry that without stronger legal standards—which EFF and other groups urged the Ninth Circuit to apply (read our brief filed in the case)—the government will easily compel platforms to comply with grand jury subpoenas to unmask anonymous speakers.
The Ninth Circuit Undercut Anonymous Speech by Applying the Wrong Test
The case centers on a federal grand jury in Arizona investigating allegations of fraud by a private contractor working for the Department of Veterans Affairs. The grand jury issued a subpoena to Glassdoor, which operates an online platform that allows current and former employees to comment anonymously about their employers, seeking the identities of eight accounts who posted about the contractor.
Glassdoor challenged the subpoena by asserting its users’ First Amendment rights. When the trial court ordered Glassdoor to comply, the company appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
The Ninth Circuit ruled that because the subpoena was issued by a grand jury as part of a criminal investigation, Glassdoor had to comply absent evidence that the investigation was being conducted in bad faith.
There are several problems with the court’s ruling, but the biggest is that in adopting a “bad faith” test as the sole limit on when anonymous speakers can be unmasked by a grand jury subpoena, it relied on a U.S. Supreme Court case called Branzburg v. Hayes.
In challenging the subpoena, Glassdoor rightly argued that Branzburg was not relevant because it dealt with whether journalists had a First Amendment right to protect the identities of their confidential sources in the face of grand jury subpoenas, and more generally, whether journalists have a First Amendment right to gather the news. This case, however, squarely deals with Glassdoor users’ First Amendment right to speak anonymously.
The Ninth Circuit ran roughshod over the issue, calling it “a distinction without a difference.” But here’s the problem: although the law is all over the map as to whether the First Amendment protects journalists’ ability to guard their sources’ identities, there is absolutely no question that the First Amendment grants anonymous speakers the right to protect their identities.
The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the First Amendment protects anonymous speakers, often by emphasizing the historic importance of anonymity in our social and political discourse. For example, many of our founders spoke anonymously while debating the provisions of our Constitution.
Because the Supreme Court in Branzburg did not outright rule that reporters have a First Amendment right to protect their confidential sources, it adopted a rule that requires a reporter to respond to a grand jury subpoena for their source’s identity unless the reporter can show that the investigation is being conducted in bad faith. This is a very weak standard and difficult to prove.
By contrast, because the right to speak anonymously has been firmly established by the Supreme Court and in jurisdictions throughout the country, the tests for when parties can unmask those speakers are more robust and protective of their First Amendment rights. These tests more properly calibrate the competing interests between the government’s need to investigate crime and the First Amendment rights of anonymous speakers.
The Ninth Circuit’s reliance on Branzburg effectively eviscerates any substantive First Amendment protections for anonymous speakers by not imposing any meaningful limitation on grand jury subpoenas. Further, the court’s ruling puts the burden on anonymous speakers—or platforms like Glassdoor standing in their shoes—to show that an investigation is being conducted in bad faith before setting aside the subpoena.
The Ninth Circuit’s reliance on Branzburg is also wrong because the Supreme Court ruling in that case was narrow and limited to the situation involving reporters’ efforts to guard the identities of their confidential sources. As Justice Powell wrote in his concurrence, “I … emphasize what seems to me to be the limited nature of the Court’s ruling.” The standards in that unique case should not be transported to cases involving grand jury subpoenas to unmask anonymous speakers generally. However, that’s what the court has done—expanded Branzburg to now apply in all instances in which a grand jury subpoena targets individuals whose identities are unknown to the grand jury.
Finally, the Ninth Circuit’s use of Branzburg is further improper because there are a number of other cases and legal doctrines that more squarely address how courts should treat demands to pierce anonymity. Indeed, as we discussed in our brief, there is a whole body of law that applies robust standards to unmasking anonymous speakers, including the Ninth Circuit’s previous decision in Bursey v. U.S., which also involved a grand jury.
The Ninth Circuit Failed to Recognize the Associational Rights of Anonymous Online Speakers
The court’s decision is also troubling because it takes an extremely narrow view of the kind of anonymous associations that should be protected by the First Amendment. In dismissing claims by Glassdoor that the subpoena chilled their users’ First Amendment rights to privately associate with others, the court ruled that because Glassdoor was not itself a social or political organization such as the NAACP, the claim was “tenuous.”
There are several layers to the First Amendment right of association, including the ability of individuals to associate with others, the ability of individuals to associate with a particular organization or group, and the ability for a group or organization to maintain the anonymity of members or supporters.
Although it’s true that Glassdoor users are not joining an organization like the NAACP or a union, the court’s analysis ignores that other associational rights are implicated by the subpoena in this case. At minimum, Glassdoor’s online platform offers the potential for individuals to organize and form communities around their shared employment experiences. The First Amendment must protect those interests even if Glassdoor lacks an explicit political goal.
Moreover, even if it’s true that Glassdoor users may not have an explicitly political goal in commenting on their current or past employers, they are still associating online with others with similar experiences to speak honestly about what happens inside companies, what their professional experiences are like, and how they believe those employers can improve.
The risk of being identified as a Glassdoor user is a legitimate one that courts should recognize as analogous to the risks of civil rights groups or unions being compelled to identify their members. Disclosure in both instances chills individuals’ abilities to explore their own experiences, attitudes, and beliefs.
The Ninth Circuit Missed an Opportunity to Vindicate Online Speakers’ First Amendment Rights
Significantly absent from the court’s decision was any real discussion about the value of anonymous speech and its historical role in our country. This is a shame because the case would have been a great opportunity to show the importance of First Amendment protections for online speakers.
EFF has long fought for anonymity online because we know its importance in fostering robust expression and debate. Subpoenas such as the one issued to Glassdoor deter people from speaking anonymously about issues related to their employment. Glassdoor provides a valuable service because its anonymous reviews help inform other people’s career choices while also keeping employers accountable to their workers and potentially the general public.
The Ninth Circuit’s decision appeared unconcerned with this reality, and its “bad faith” standard places no meaningful limit on the use of grand jury subpoenas to unmask anonymous speakers. This will ultimately harm speakers who can now be more easily targeted and unmasked, particularly if they have said something controversial or offensive.