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Law Firm Shows Ignorance of the Law in Anonymous Emailer Case

PRESS RELEASE
April 21, 2005

EFF Sends Letter of Protest to Shearman &amp Sterling Over Subpoena to Craigslist

San Francisco, CA - When an employee of San Francisco law firm Shearman &amp Sterling received an email from an anonymous person who seemed to be a disgruntled subordinate, he didn't hit the delete button. Instead, his firm subpoenaed craigslist, a community bulletin board where the email first appeared as a posting, in order to discover the identity of the "Jane Doe."

The firm justified its actions by arguing that the alleged employee's email was a form of "trespass" on Shearman's computer systems. The implication of this claim is far-reaching. Contradicting binding precedent, Shearman proposes a rule that would mean anyone who sends an email faces legal liability. It would allow email recipients to track down anonymous correspondents simply to punish them for being annoying or offensive.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has written an open letter to Shearman urging it to drop the subpoena. "The Constitution does not permit subpoenas for identity just because someone was upset," said EFF Staff Attorney Kurt Opsahl. "While it is unfortunate that a Shearman employee received an offensive email message, Shearman cannot manufacture a cause of action out of thin air just so it can unmask an anonymous speaker."

In its letter, EFF reminds Shearman of the long tradition of US courts protecting anonymous speech, and argues that the law firm has demonstrated no legal cause of action because it did not show how receiving a single email message caused harm. Indeed, the California Supreme Court ruled two years ago that sending an email is not a form of trespass (see Intel v. Hamidi).

Contacts:

Kurt Opsahl
Staff Attorney
Electronic Frontier Foundation
kurt@eff.org

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