Maine Supreme Court to Rule On Email Anonymity

Jeff Berg
PORTLAND, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court heard arguments Tuesday to determine whether the sender of a prank email that claimed to be from another person must reveal his name.

The case revolves around a Dec. 24, 2003, email that contained cartoon images of Great Diamond Island resident Ronald Fitch and his wife. The message was sent to Fitch and five other residents of Great Diamond Island, and came from a Hotmail account registered in Fitch’s name.

Fitch has sued the anonymous sender, claiming violation of privacy, misappropriation of identity, fraud, putting Fitch in a false light and infliction of emotional distress, and asked that the sender’s Internet service provider reveal his name.

On May 12, a superior court issued an order instructing Time Warner, the sender’s service provider, to reveal the identity. John Doe’s attorney filled an appeal later that month.

Paul Levy, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest attorney with the Public Citizen Litigation Group, argued before Maine’s highest court on Tuesday that revealing the anonymous sender’s name would be an invasion of the sender’s right to privacy.

“Our issue is not what happens in this case, it’s in what process the court uses in these anonymous-speech cases,” Levy said.

Levy’s group, which has filed briefs on behalf of at least two dozen cases of Internet users who want to protect their identities, proposes that Maine adopt a test by which plaintiffs seeking to have Internet users revealed must first show that they have been harmed by the speech and that a claim would prevail under state law.

Justice Donald Alexander questioned Levy’s reasoning, asking, “What possible public interest is there in protecting the identity of an identity thief?”

Levy responded that it was premature to reveal the defendant’s name because it was unclear whether this was actually identity theft or a form of constitutionally protected parody.

Tom Connolly, the attorney for Fitch, told the court that the email does not warrant any type of constitutional protection.

“This is not anonymous speech,” Connolly said. “Anonymous is non-attributed. Fraud, though is falsely attributed.”

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation also filed briefs in support of the defendant.

The justices said they will issue a written decision sometime in the near future.

The case is Finch vs. John or Jane Doe, No. CV-04-078.