Web posted Tuesday, October 17, 2000

Court: Anonymous Internet postings not protected

Associated Press

MIAMI -- Internet bulletin boards are not a place to anonymously rant, rave and cross the legal line into defamation, a Florida appeals court has ruled.

The American Civil Liberties Union lost an attempt to protect the identity of people who posted messages on a Yahoo! financial chat room about former Hvide Marine Inc. president and CEO Erik Hvide, who charges defamatory Internet missives forced him out last year.

''What you're going to see on the Internet now in light of this case is that people may think a bit before they speak,'' Hvide attorney Bruce Fischman said Monday. ''The Internet now hopefully will start to become a little bit more civilized.''

But Lauren Gelman, public policy director with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, worries that the level playing field offered by the Internet may disappear if other courts follow the lead of the 3rd District Court of Appeals in approving subpoenas.

''This kind of speech happens all the time in all kinds of chat rooms,'' Gelman said. ''We don't want to see these subpoenas become regularly used to cause people to self-censor themselves.''

In a one-paragraph order Thursday, the court dissolved a stay freezing subpoenas of Yahoo! and AOL records. Before the anonymous Web users challenged the subpoenas, Yahoo! had acknowledged one user had an AOL e-mail account.

Both Internet companies took a back seat in the lawsuit, saying they would do whatever the judges said. But the issue is largely untested in the nation's courts.

The ACLU wanted the trial judge to decide motions for summary judgment and dismissal, in essence judging whether Hvide had been defamed by up to eight people identified in court papers only as John Doe, before identifying them. If there were no showing of defamation, the critics would remain anonymous.

University of Florida law professor Lyrissa Lidsky, who argued the case for the ACLU, called the decision a surprise and a setback. But she said, ''It's not a defeat for all the other John Does in the pipeline'' fighting Internet-related subpoenas because the court did not explain its legal reasoning.

An appeal is being explored.

''The court had the potential to set an important precedent about the right to speak anonymously on the Internet,'' Lidsky said. ''The courts are eventually going to have to come to grips with this issue and decide how broad free speech rights are in cyberspace.''