Real Estate Developer Seeks To Unmask Anonymous Commenters
The tabloids are still making hay over the unmasking of the blogger who trashed model Liskula Cohen on the site Skanks in NYC. But that's hardly the only dispute to hit the courts about anonymous commenters.
Another case brewing in Chicago has caught the attention of the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, which just filed a motion asking a judge to quash a subpoena for the names of online commenters.
That case stems from a long-running controversy about Chicago's Wilson Yard development project. Some residents who oppose the project took their complaints online, where they created blogs like "Uptown Update" and the now-defunct "What the Helen" (which discussed the 2007 campaign of Chicago Alderman Helen Shiller) -- both of which were hosted by Google. The neighborhood association Buena Park Neighbors also linked to a message board that hosted anonymous comments about many matters, including the project.
Last December, a group of opponents sued to block the project. The developer responded by attempting to subpoena the names and other identifying information of the Web commenters.
The developer's lawyer, Tom Johnson, says he's trying to learn whether any commenters are also parties to the lawsuit. If so, he says, "their comments could be used effectively on cross-examination at any preliminary injunction hearing."
But the EFF argues that the subpoenas are nothing more than "improper threats to out anonymous critics of their development project."
EFF attorney Matt Zimmerman says the developer is targeting people "solely based on their critical speech and nothing else." He adds that the developer has no reason to think that any of the Web commenters are involved in the lawsuit. "This would be like going into the neighborhood that is affected by this development project and subpoenaing every resident because -- who knows? -- maybe the resident might have information relevant to their case," he says.
Zimmerman adds that the developer's lawyer could simply ask the people who are suing whether they have ever made prior statements about the case, as opposed to subpoenaing the names of commenters.
Besides, he says, any prior remarks by the plaintiffs are irrelevant given that a court already ruled that the project's opponents waited too long to sue. In May, Judge Mary Rochford of the Cook County Circuit Court dismissed the lawsuit on the grounds that the plaintiffs knew about the development since 2001 but didn't bring suit until 2008. Last month, the opponents filed amended papers, but that action seems likely to also be thrown out for the same reason.