Doe v. 2TheMart.com, Inc., 140 F.Supp.2d 1088 (W.D. Wash. 2001) (full-text).
Factual Background Edit
In a previous case, the shareholders of 2TheMart.com (TMRT) brought a shareholder derivative action against the company alleging fraud on the market. To establish a defense that the defendant did not cause any injury to the plaintiff, TMRT issued a subpoena to a local internet service provider, Silicon Investor/InfoSpace, Inc. (InfoSpace), on which TMRT has an Internet bulletin board, seeking to obtain the identities of twenty-three users who had posted unfavorable messages about the company on the TMRT bulletin board. InfoSpace Informed these users of receipt of the subpoena. One of the users moved to quash the subpoena under a pseudonym John Doe (Doe), alleging that enforcement of the subpoena would violate his or her First Amendment right to speak anonymously.
Trial Court Proceedings Edit
The trial court granted Doe’s motion to quash the subpoena. The court agreed with Doe’s contention that TMRT has no right to discover the identity of the anonymous users on the InfoSpace website. Although the court did not find suitable federal court authority on the issue of a third-party seeking through a civil subpoena the identities of anonymous Internet users, the court maintained that the anonymity of Internet speech is protected by the First Amendment. Therefore, when requesting the identity of anonymous users, a litigant is required to show that the need for the users’ identity outweighs the users’ First Amendment rights. The court also held that where the anonymous Internet user's identity is being subpoenaed is also a defendant in the underlying litigation, the plaintiff must to show that they are bringing the lawsuit in good faith, and that they have a compelling need for the identifying information.
Since the anonymous user in this case was not a defendant, but a non-party witness, the court set a higher standard for disclosing the identity of the anonymous non-party. In particular, the trial court considered the following four factors to decide whether the subpoena should be issued:
- Is the subpoena brought in good faith? The court found that there was no clear evidence to show that TMRT issued the subpoena in bad faith or for an improper purpose. The reason that TMRT brought the subpoena was to defend against a shareholder class action lawsuit. However, the information that the original subpoena sought was extremely broad. It required to disclose not only personal emails but also other personal information that has no relation with the lawsuit. Therefore, this disregard for privacy protection and First Amendment right of the Internet users weighed against TMRT.
- Is the claim or defense for which the information is sought a core part of the case? The court held that the information sought by TMRT was associated with only one of 27 defenses and that this single defense goes far from the core of the matter. Therefore, the second factor weighs against TMRT as well.
- Is the identity information of the anonymous user directly and materially relevant to that claim or defense? The court held that TMRT failed to show that the identity of the anonymous users is directly and materially related to any core defense. Their identity is not necessary to further the litigation.
- Is there any other source from which the required information is available? The court held that TMRT may obtain the required information by reading the archived chat room documents and comparing the timing of the relevant statements with the timing of fluctuations in the TMRT stock price. Thus, TMRT can obtain the information in another way without invading the Internet users’ First Amendment rights.
After analyzing and weighing these four factors, the trial court held that TMRT had failed to show that the identities of these anonymous Internet users were directly and materially relevant to the core defense in the litigation, and thus the subpoena should be quashed.