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Sedersten v. Taylor

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Citation Edit

Sedersten v. Taylor, 2009 WL 4802567 (W.D. Mo. Dec. 9, 2009) (full-text).

Factual Background Edit

Plaintiff Sedersten brought a suit for police brutality allegedly suffered at the hands of Defendant Taylor, a Springfield, Missouri Police Officer. To support his case, plaintiff sought the identity of an anonymous blogger who plaintiff believed may have information about defendant's propensity for violence.

Trial Court Proceedings Edit

The court denied plaintiff's motion to compel the identity of the blogger after weighing plaintiff's reasons for obtaining the information against the poster's constitutional right to anonymous political speech.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that "an author's decision to remain anonymous . . . is an aspect of the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment."[1] This right to anonymity is not without exception as courts have shown a willingness to unmask anonymous online speakers in the context of copyright infringement and defamation cases. When determining whether to disclose the identity of an anonymous defendant a plaintiff generally must establish that it would be able to defeat a motion for summary judgment. When the anonymous speaker is a non-party, however, the plaintiff bears a heightened burden and must establish a need for the disclosure that outweighs the speaker’s First Amendment rights.

In the instant case there are additional First Amendment hurdles for the plaintiff because the speech in question is political speech, which requires the application of strict scrutiny. The plaintiff brought the motion to disclose the poster’s identity based on an argument that the poster's statements implied knowledge of the defendant's tendency for violence. Even if the court accepted the plaintiff's argument and the poster did have such knowledge, the identity of the poster would add very little, if anything, to the argument and therefore the court refused to expose the poster's identity.

Plaintiff also argued that the anonymous poster had waived its right to First Amendment protection pursuant to the Springfield News-Leader's online policies. The post in question was made in response to an article on the Springfield News-Leader website. In order to post a comment the anonymous blogger was required to register for an account but was not required to disclose any personal information such as name, address, or telephone number; the user was identified only as "bornandraisedhere." Under the Springfield News-Leader privacy policy, the newspaper reserved the right to disclose any and all information collected to third parties, however since no personally identifiable information was disclosed it cannot be said that the anonymous poster was aware of the possibility that it was waiving its rights to First Amendment protection. The courts have held that a contractual waiver of constitutional rights must be clear and that there is a presumption against such a waiver.

While it can be assumed that the poster agreed to the possible disclosure of the information provided for commercial purposes and in conjunction with advertisements, nothing in the website terms or privacy policy amounted to sufficient notice for a constitutional waiver and therefore the court rejected the plaintiff's motion to disclose the poster's identity.

References Edit

  1. Meyer v. Ohio Elections Comm’n, 514 U.S. 334, 342 (1995).

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