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Chicago Development Critics Fight for Anonymity

August 21, 2009

Chicago Development Critics Fight for Anonymity

EFF Battles Heavy-Handed Tactics Threatening Free Speech

Chicago - The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has asked an Illinois Circuit Court judge to quash subpoenas aimed at outing opponents of a controversial city project.

In December, local residents filed a lawsuit in state court against the city of Chicago and local developers, challenging the legality of a development project in the city's Uptown neighborhood. In response, the "Wilson Yard Defendants," six firms associated with Chicago developer Peter Holsten, issued subpoenas directing Google and a local neighborhood association to unmask anonymous online critics who had discussed either the project or Alderman Helen Shiller, the primary governmental sponsor of the project.

EFF and co-counsel Charles Mudd Jr. obtained a temporary order protecting the anonymous speakers in July, while the defendants asked that the court wait to consider whether to dismiss the subpoenas until after the plaintiffs filed an amended complaint. With the amended complaint now filed, providing no support for the subpoenas, EFF and Mudd have moved to quash the subpoenas outright.

"The right to speak anonymously is a fundamental element of the First Amendment. Individuals need to know that they can express their views, and do so without fear of legal reprisal," said EFF Staff Attorney Matt Zimmerman. "Efforts to target critics of government-sponsored activity are precisely what the First Amendment is designed to prevent."

While anonymous online speakers can be unmasked in certain narrow circumstances, none of them apply in this case. In a motion to quash the subpoenas filed Friday, EFF argues that the identities of the critics have no bearing on issue before the court -- a lawsuit that concerns land-use ordinances. EFF has repeatedly tried to resolve the matter with the developer's attorneys but to no avail.

"Enough is enough," said Zimmerman. "The defendants are demonstrating a callous disregard for the First Amendment and cannot be allowed to abuse the judicial process any longer."

The sites targeted by the subpoena to Google were community websites "Uptown Update" (www.uptownupdate.com) and "What the Helen" (defunct since 2007). Also targeted with a separate subpoena was non-profit neighborhood association Buena Park Neighbors (www.buenaparkneighbors.org).

For the full motion to quash the subpoenas:
http://www.eff.org/files/filenode/fix_wilson_yard/FIXWILSONYARD92109.pdf

Contacts:

Matt Zimmerman
Senior Staff Attorney
Electronic Frontier Foundation
mattz@eff.org

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