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First Amendment Protections Don’t End For Anonymous Speakers Who Lose Lawsuits, EFF Tells Court

PRESS RELEASE
January 17, 2017
Plaintiffs Don’t Automatically Get to Unmask Anonymous Blogger

Cincinnati—The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) urged a federal appeals court to uphold a judge’s ruling that the identity of an anonymous blogger found to have infringed copyright should remain secret, arguing that courts must balance litigants’ needs to unmask online speakers against the First Amendment protections afforded to those relying on anonymity.

Maintaining one’s anonymity online may be warranted even in cases—like this one—where a court ruled that a blogger infringed a copyright, EFF said in an amicus brief filed with the U.S. Court of Appeal for the Sixth Circuit. The balancing test required by the First Amendment to protect speakers who choose to mask their identity must be applied at every stage of a lawsuit, including after a court finds an anonymous speaker violated the law, EFF said.

EFF believes Signature Management Team LLC v. John Doe marks the first case to consider whether speakers can remain anonymous even after a court rules that they broke the law.

“Plaintiffs don’t get to unmask anonymous bloggers just because they prove liability. The First Amendment requires that judges balance the need for anonymity against the needs of litigants at every stage of a lawsuit,” said Aaron Mackey, EFF Frank Stanton Legal Fellow. “Being able to speak online anonymously allows citizens to air dissenting views without fear of retaliation. Unmasking anonymous bloggers without proper justification can discourage people from speaking out or commenting online, which chills the free speech rights of all Americans.”

The plaintiff is a multi-level marketing (MLM) company that won a judgment against the owner of Amthrax.com, a website and blog that criticizes Amway and other MLM companies. The owner is a former Amway marketer who blogs anonymously. Signature Management sued John Doe for infringing the copyright of its book, which was posted on Amthrax.com.

After a judge ruled its copyright had been infringed, Signature Management sought a court order revealing the identity of John Doe, who feared he would face a slew of abusive comments and threats once his identity was known. The trial judge refused. In doing so, the judge correctly balanced the needs of the plaintiff with the First Amendment protections of the blogger.

For the brief:

https://www.eff.org/document/smt-v-doe-amicus-brief

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