In Subpoena Duces Tecum to America Online, Inc., 52 Va. Cir. 26, 2000 WL 1210372 (2000).
Factual Background Edit
The issue arose when a subpoena duces tecum was served on America Online, Inc. ("AOL") seeking disclosure of identifying information for four AOL Internet service subscribers. The plaintiff, Anonymous Publicly Traded Co. (APTC), sought the identities of the subscribers so that it could name them as defendants in an action it previously instituted in Indiana. It claimed that the John Does had published in Internet chat rooms certain defamatory material misrepresentations and confidential material insider information, concerning APTC, "in breach of the fiduciary duties and contractual obligations owed to [APTC]." AOL filed a motion to quash.
Trial Court Proceedings Edit
|“||To fail to recognize that the First Amendment right to speak anonymously should be extended to communications on the Internet would require this Court to ignore either United States Supreme Court precedent or the realities of speech in the twenty-first century. This Court declines to do either and holds that the right to communicate anonymously on the Internet falls within the scope of the First Amendment's protections.||”|
However, the court noted that the right to anonymity is not absolute:
|“||In that the Internet provides a virtually unlimited, inexpensive, and almost immediate means of communication with tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people, the dangers of its misuse cannot be ignored. The protection of the right to communicate anonymously must be balanced against the need to assure that those persons who choose to abuse the opportunities presented by this medium can be made to answer for such transgressions. Those who suffer damages as a result of tortious or other actionable communications on the Internet should be able to seek appropriate redress by preventing the wrongdoers from hiding behind an illusory shield of purported First Amendment rights.||”|
To determine whether an Internet poster's identity should be disclosed, the court announced a three-prong test:
|“||a court should only order a non-party, Internet service provider to provide information concerning the identity of a subscriber (1) when the court is satisfied by the pleadings or evidence supplied to that court (2) that the party requesting the subpoena has a legitimate, good faith basis to contend that it may be the victim of conduct actionable in the jurisdiction where suit was filed and (3) the subpoenaed identity information is centrally needed to advance that claim.||”|
The court denied AOL's motion, holding that "the compelling state interest in protecting companies . . . from the potentially severe consequences that could easily flow from actionable communications on the information superhighway significantly outweigh the limited intrusion on the First Amendment rights of any innocent subscribers."