posted on Mar, 7 2003 @ 08:02 PM
PITTSBURGH -- Messages about public figures in Internet chat rooms are akin to anonymous pamphlets like Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" and their
authors should have the same right to keep their identities secret, advocates told Pennsylvania's highest court.
The American Civil Liberties Union and a number of Internet companies have lined up to protect the identity of a person who alleged in a political
online chat room that a state court judge behaved unethically.
The groups argue the Internet is the equivalent of the anonymous sheets patriots once nailed to trees and courthouse doors to criticize the English
monarchy before America declared independence. Paine's influential pamphlet, "Common Sense," came out in January 1776.
Attorneys for Superior Court Judge Jane Ore Melvin say the chat-room message, insinuating she illegally lobbied then-Gov. Tom Ridge to appoint a
friend to a vacant spot on the Allegheny County bench, was defamatory.
Her defamation lawsuit is pending while her lawyers try to get America Online to disclose the identity of the author. The appeal argued before the
state Supreme Court on Monday was from an appeals court ruling that said the author must be identified.
There was no indication when a ruling will come from the Supreme Court.
Lower courts in four other states -- New Jersey, Washington, California, Virginia -- have ruled that extreme caution should be used when deciding
whether to reveal the identity of Internet users. Similar suits are pending in numerous states, according to the ACLU.
One of Melvin's attorneys, Robert Lampl, argued that although the Internet is a new mode of communication, it should not free individuals to slander
But Ann Beeson, associate legal director for the ACLU, told the high court that forcing service providers to divulge the identity of chat-room users,
who often use pseudonyms, would create a chilling environment and inhibit frank discussion, especially about the government.
"We are not saying that there should be complete immunity from suit whenever someone says something anonymous on the Internet," Beeson said. "We
are only arguing that, especially when it's a public official that is criticized -- that public official has to show that she actually suffered some
harm from the statement before she can proceed to unmask the speaker."
Under the Pennsylvania Constitution, the bar for proving harm to a public official is considerably higher than for others.
Experts say it will be difficult for the judge, who was recently endorsed by the state Republican Party to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court, to
prove she suffered harm.
"When you have speech about a public official, it's going to get the highest level of First Amendment protection and in this case in particular,"
said Robert Richards, a professor of communications and law at Penn State University.
"Courts that have dealt with this issue recently have recognized the Internet as one of the broadest vehicles of speech yet and that it deserves a
high degree of protection."
Beeson said political dissenters in the 21st century have the same fears of reprisal, and the same need to remain anonymous, as the pamphleteers of
the pre-Revolutionary era.
"Just like the founders of this country did and they did it for a very good reason," Beeson said. "They wanted to be able to criticize the
government and not suffer retaliation."
Asked by Justice J. Michael Eakin what harm Melvin had suffered, her attorney replied that she was "humiliated, embarrassed. People shun her."
"Public officials have to withstand criticism, sometimes brutal," Lampl said. "What they don't have to withstand is falsehood."