Debate brews over Hvide’s Internet suit

By Dan Christensen

Former Hvide Marine boss J. Erik Hvide’s lawsuit against eight anonymous Web surfers he claims have smeared him has moved to center stage in a growing national debate about free speech rights on the Internet.

Late last month, citing a so-called First Amendment “right to anonymity,” the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU’s Florida office filed papers in Hvide’s Miami-Dade Circuit Court case seeking to quash subpoenas that were served on Yahoo and America Online. The subpoenas aim to unmask Hvide’s critics. To date, the true identity of those critics is a mystery; they are known only by Web site handles like “THE 1 Quiz” and “justthefactsjack.”

“This case represents novel issues of national importance,” says the ACLU’s friend-of-the-court brief. “Defamation law should be applied carefully to Internet communications, lest the threat of being held liable for defamation chill Internet users from engaging in the types of spirited discussions that have become the norm.”

“What the ACLU is doing is asking the court to write new legislation, and to write new rules of civil procedure,” counters Bruce D. Fischman, a Miami lawyer who, with attorney David S. Harris, represents Hvide. “The courts are designed for plaintiffs to sue known defendants, not unknown defendants. And defendants from the Internet have no greater rights than defendants in any other litigation.”

Christopher K. Leigh, of Fort Lauderdale’s English McCaughan & O’Bryan, represents “THE 1 Quiz,” whom he declined to identify. Leigh was on vacation last week, but previously said he welcomed the ACLU’s pleading on his client’s behalf.

In October, this column reported on Erik Hvide’s suit and his contention he’s been defamed, tormented and threatened by incognito bulletin board posters — seemingly angry stockholders and unhappy workers who lost money and jobs when Hvide Marine filed for bankruptcy protection last September. (The company emerged from Chapter 11 in December and its new stock trades on the Over the Counter Bulletin Board under the symbol HVDM.)

While Hvide has so far been stymied in his attempts to discover the identities of his antagonists — Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Eleanor Shockett won’t hear further argument on quashing the subpoenas until May 25 — he’s recently upped his damages claim. He now contends their missives, falsely alleging or implying fraud and mismanagement, caused the board of directors to dump him as president, chairman and chief executive officer of Hvide Marine.

That includes comments by THE 1 Quiz, who compared Erik Hvide to the captain of the notorious Exxon Valdez oil tanker — “implying he was either drunk or asleep at the wheel of the corporation,” the complaint says.

Still, if Erik Hvide was fired, it’s news to Hvide Marine. The company issued a press release last summer saying Erik Hvide stepped down for “personal reasons.”

“Erik resigned,” company spokesman Jack O’Connell reiterated last week.

Truth notwithstanding, the matter becomes academic unless Erik Hvide can convince the court that he has a right to confront his Internet accusers. And to get to them, he must now get past the ACLU and its assertions of a right to anonymity for those who use “this important new medium of communication.”

“The democratic nature of Internet discussions is supported by the convention of anonymity,” says the ACLU’s amicus brief. “The use of pseudonyms forces the audience to judge a speaker’s arguments based on the words alone rather than the identify of the speaker. It also allows Internet users to experiment with unpopular ideas or opinions and to speak freely without fear of retaliation in the ‘real world.’ ”

The brief was written by Lyrissa Lidsky, an associate professor at the University of Florida College of Law, attorneys Christopher A. Hansen and Ann Beeson of the ACLU’s New York headquarters, and lawyer Andrew H. Kayton of the ACLU’s Miami office.

Meanwhile, the howling in cyberspace about Erik Hvide continues. New messages are posted on Yahoo’s message board nearly every day, by THE 1 Quiz and others.

Want to know more? Or add your two cents?

Here’s the URL address that you can type to take you to Hvide Marine’s bulletin board:\?action=q&board+hmarq.

Then batten down the hatches.

Web Published Monday, March 6, 2000
Published in Daily Business Review on: Monday, March 6, 2000