Court Compromises On Request To Unmask Blogger
Courts throughout the country have faced requests to unmask anonymous commenters. Mostly, judges have either quashed the subpoena, or -- as famously happened in the recent Liskula Cohen case -- granted the request.
Now, a judge in California has crafted a new type of compromise order -- one that could potentially become more common in these types of cases. The judge, Shelleyanne Chang in Sacramento, ordered that the commenters' IP addresses be disclosed to an independent investigator rather than to the person seeking the information -- in this case, former police officer Calvin Chang (no relation to the judge), who is suing the University of California. If the investigation reveals that the commenters were particular university employees, their names will be turned over. If not, their identities will be kept under wraps.
The ruling dealt with comments posted to the Google-hosted blog People's Vanguard of Davis, which wrote about Chang's lawsuit in February. Chang subpoenaed Google for the IP addresses associated with seven comments -- five that were posted anonymously and two that were posted under a screen name.
Google notified the blog's author, David Greenwald, who opposed the subpoena on the grounds that it was "nothing more than an attempt to intimidate those who have expressed a negative opinion" about Chang or his lawsuit.
Chang countered that he had reason to believe that the posts were made by managers at the university, and therefore, were relevant to his lawsuit, according to the court's ruling in the case.
The judge issued the compromise ruling after finding that Chang and Greenwald each had valid points. On one hand, she said the subpoena "appears reasonably calculated to lead to admissible evidence" because Chang presented reasons why he believed the posts were made by specific employees. But she also wrote that there was a "a substantial possibility that the comments were posted by individuals with no connection at all to the university."
Matt Zimmerman at the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation said the unusual compromise order appeared to be a first. "Most of the time, the court's in a position to say, 'You're either entitled to the information or not,'" he said.
Zimmerman, who has argued in favor of preserving anonymity in other cases, said the ruling marked an improvement over simply ordering the information turned over. "The court was willing to think of the big picture here," he said.