Court Upholds Message Board Anonymity

Stephen Yagielowicz
LOS ANGELES – A California appellate court has ruled that individuals who post to Internet message boards have a 1st Amendment right to anonymity which can only be overcome in a defamation case if the plaintiff shows that the posts give rise to a viable cause of action.

The ruling stems from a case involving a popular financial forum where stock trading, corporate behavior and other finance-related issues were discussed, often by users hiding behind pseudonyms or "screen names" to protect their true identity.

In Jan. 2006, Lisa Krinsky, former president, chairman of the board, and chief operating officer of SFBC International, a Florida-based drug company, sued 10 "Doe" defendants in a Florida court, alleging that the defendants had made "defamatory remarks" about her on Yahoo! message boards and other sites, using screen names to conceal their identities.

Krinsky subpoenaed Yahoo! in an attempt to discover the identity of the pseudonymous posters – a move which was unsuccessfully contested by defendant "Doe 6" who then subsequently appealed the judgment, contending that he had a First Amendment right to speak anonymously on the Internet.

The defendant's appeal has been successful, with the Sixth Appellate Court opining that "Under the circumstances presented, we agree with Doe 6 that his identity should be protected and therefore reverse the order."

During the litigation, all 10 defendants were accused of intentional interference with a "contractual and/or business employment relationship" between Krinsky and SFBC, with nine of the defendants being accused of libel "based on false and misleading Internet statements imputing dishonesty, fraud, improper professional conduct, and criminal activity to plaintiff."

According to records of the messages posted on Yahoo!'s SFBC message board, Doe 6, who used the screen name "Senor_Pinche_Wey," called former SFBC vice president of legal affairs Jerry 'Lew' Seifer a "mega scum bag" and a "cockroach."

On Dec. 30, 2005, Doe 6 also posted "Jerry 'Lew' Seifer's New Year's resolutions," which included the following statement: "I will reciprocate felatoin [sic] with Lisa [Krinsky] even though she has fat thighs, a fake medical degree, 'queefs' and has poor feminine hygiene."

Krinsky served a subpoena on the custodian of records at Yahoo! which notified Doe 6 that it would comply with the subpoena in 15 days unless a motion to quash or other legal objection was filed.

Doe 6 then moved in superior court to quash the subpoena on the grounds that the plaintiff had failed to state a claim sufficient to overcome his First Amendment rights for either defamation or interference with a contractual or business relationship, and that the plaintiff's request for injunctive relief was an invalid prior restraint.

The court agreed.

The full opinion of the appellate court can be found here.