Sandals, Pursuing Libel Claim, Asks Judge To Unmask Anonymous Gmail User
In the latest instance of a company attempting to unmask an anonymous critic, vacation resort chain Sandals is asking a New York state judge to order Google to reveal information that could identify a Gmail user who criticized Sandals' hiring practices.
Sandals alleges in court papers that a Gmail account user sent out an email that "suggests that [Sandals] is racist and discriminatory is not hiring native Jamaicans in positions of management and authority, and that native Jamaicans are only given low-paying menial positions."
The vacation company contends that the email, sent under the apparent pseudonym John Anthony and from the address email@example.com, is libelous. Sandals says it needs to know the account holder's name in order to bring a defamation lawsuit.
State Supreme Court Judge Alice Schlesinger gave the Gmail account user until Feb. 22 to contest Sandals' request. If the user doesn't appear, Schlesinger said in the order that she will direct Google to disclose the information, provided that Sandals has shown it has "a meritorious cause of action."
The vacation company attached a printout of a Nov. 11 email to its legal papers, but did not specify which precise statements it alleges are defamatory. The email, obtained Wednesday by MediaPost, included several different statements that criticized the resort's alleged hiring policies. One line, printed in all capital letters, reads: "Menial-low paying jobs for Jamaicans, High profile luxury-style jobs for foreigners!"
Another says: "Look at this great job that went to a foreigner." Immediately underneath is the first sentence of a press release in which Sandals announced the appointment of Dinah Marzullo as senior director of advertising.
The author complains in another passage that Sandals "does not even have a single dark-skinned Jamaican on its board."
If the account holder objects to being unmasked, Sandals could have a hard time proving that it has a viable libel claim, says Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Matt Zimmerman. "On first glance, I don't see that there's anything defamatory there," he says. "This is someone criticizing the hiring practices of a company and asking questions," he adds.
Zimmerman adds that even if the email contains some inaccuracies, Sandals could only prevail on a libel claim if it proves that the sender published the message with malice -- that is, knowledge that it was false or reckless disregard of its falsity -- assuming that Sandals is considered a "public figure" and that the email deals with matters of public concern.