October 13, 2006 | By corynne mcsherry

Paying the Price for Trying to Chill Speech

Bloggers in California have scored another victory against baseless legal threats intended to chill free speech. In Tendler v. Does, Mordecai Tendler had tried and failed to unmask several anonymous bloggers who had written about his alleged sexual misconduct. Yesterday, a California State Superior Court judge ruled that he must now pay for the bloggers' attorneys fees incurred during the bogus lawsuit.

Rabbi Tendler was expelled from the Rabbinical Council of America in March 2005 after several women that he professionally counseled accused him of sexual abuse and harassment. One of his accusers sued him in December 2005, and his congregation dismissed him from his post earlier this year.

Both the mainstream media and blogs picked up the story. In an effort to silence his critics, Tendler filed a lawsuit in Ohio (though he lives in New York) to identify several anonymous bloggers, alleging false and defamatory accusations. Tendler then filed a case in San Jose, Calif., to obtain subpoenas compelling Google to disclose information identifying four bloggers.

Lawsuits like this one are too often designed as an excuse for a court-ordered investigation into the identity of anonymous speakers. If the speakers fight back, however, the plaintiffs simply withdraw their meritless claims, content in the knowledge that at least they have made life a little more difficult for their critics by forcing them to hire attorneys to defend themselves.

That's what Tendler tried to do here -- he quickly backed off after Public Citizen (with EFF's assistance as local counsel) moved to strike the California case as meritless and asked the court to make Tendler pay the bloggers' attorneys' fees. Tendler withdrew the subpoenas, dismissed the case, and finally dismissed his attorneys. Today's ruling by Judge Neal A. Cabrinha rejected Tendler's effort to avoid responsibility and forced him to pay up.

Frivolous filers take heed: California courts like free speech, and they don't like to waste time on meritless lawsuits designed to chill that speech.

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