Public Citizen Weighs In On Why Court Should Protect @DevinCow's Information Under The 1st Amendment

from the satirical-cows-get-free-speech-protection-too dept

As lawyer Steven Biss continues to use one lawsuit to seek to identify the person or people behind a satirical internet cow that he's trying to unmask in another case, Public Citizen's Paul Levy has now filed an amicus brief arguing that identifying who is behind the @DevinCow account (along with two other pseudonymous accounts) would violate the 1st Amendment. While the brief makes a nod towards the point that the @DevinCow account seems entirely unrelated to the case at hand -- between PR guy Trevor FitzGibbon and lawyer Jesselyn Radack -- its arguments focus on the fact that, even if @DevinCow had communicated with Radack, the subpoena that Biss sent to Twitter on behalf of FitzGibbon would violate 1st Amendment protections for anonymity.

Full First Amendment protection applies to communications on the Internet, and longstanding precedent recognizes that speakers have a First Amendment right to communicate anonymously, so long as they do not violate the law in doing so. Thus, when discovery seeks to identify an anonymous speaker, courts must balance the right to obtain redress from alleged perpetrators of civil wrongs against the right to anonymity of those who have done no wrong – and when the discovery targets are third-party witnesses, they are, by definition, speakers who have done no wrong. In cases such as this one, these rights come into conflict when a plaintiff seeks an order compelling disclosure of a speaker’s identity, which, if successful, would irreparably destroy the speaker’s First Amendment right to remain anonymous.

In such cases, identifying an unknown speaker is not merely the first step toward establishing a defendant’s liability for damages. Identifying the speaker gives the plaintiff immediate relief as well as a powerful new weapon, because it enables him to employ extra-judicial self-help measures to counteract both the speech and the speaker. It also creates a substantial risk of harm to the speaker, who forever loses the right to remain anonymous, not only on the speech at issue, but with respect to all speech posted with the same pseudonym. Moreover, the unmasked speaker is exposed to efforts to punish or deter his speech. For example, an employer might discharge a whistleblower, or a public official might use influence to retaliate against the speaker. Indeed, given the tenor of many online conversations, public exposure might lead a given individual to become the target of threats, doxxing and the like. Similar cases across the country, and advice openly given by lawyers to potential clients, demonstrate that access to identifying information to enable extra-judicial action may, in many cases, be the only reason plaintiffs bring many such lawsuits at all.

As Levy lays out in the brief, under no existing legal standard, should the court have Twitter identify @DevinCow and the other account holders.

Fitzgibbon’s subpoena cannot meet this standard. First, the aspect of the subpoena that seeks identifying information for @DevinCow strongly suggests bad faith. @DevinCow is a Twitter account holder who is a defendant in a different lawsuit, now pending in state court, in which a different plaintiff, also represented by Stephen Biss, counsel for plaintiff Fitzgibbon in this case, has been frustrated in his efforts to use Virginia state subpoenas to compel the identification of that defendant. The subpoenas have not succeeded, in part because Mr. Biss has not complied with Virginia’s statutory procedure for such subpoenas—which do not apply in federal court—but also in part because he has not met the First Amendment standard for identifying anonymous speakers who have been sued for their speech. The justifications set forth in Fitzgibbon’s opposition to the motion to quash do not come close to showing any basis for believing that @DevinCow has had any involvement in making any false statements about Fitzgibbon or of that she has any evidence bearing on the claims by or against Fitzgibbon; the use of the subpoena in this case to identify @DevinCow is a transparent ruse. The significant indications of bad faith infect the validity of the entire subpoena, not just the aspect seeking to identify @DevinCow.

Second, the effort to discover the identities of @DevinCow, @jimmysllama and @Kaidinn, and to obtain location and other potential identifying information about the owners of twenty-two additional Twitter accounts, is not pursued in aid of Fitzgibbon’s core claims, for defamation and breach of contract. Discovery is sought in aid of Fitzgibbon’s claim that Radack is liable for having conspired to defame him with various third parties, who are not named as defendants in this litigation. But under Virginia law, a conspiracy to commit a tort is actionable only if the plaintiff can also succeed on the underlying tort claim, here defamation.... Similarly, under Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988), and Food Lion v. Capital Cities/ABC, 194 F.3d 505, 522 (4th Cir. 1999), a tort claim that seeks damages for injury to reputation can succeed only if the claim meets First Amendment standards for a defamation claim. In effect, then, Fitzgibbon’s civil conspiracy claim against Radack is one that piggybacks on his defamation claim and may, assuming that Radack has sufficient assets, provide an additional claim for damages. But discovery in aid of additional damages does not pertain to a core claim and hence does not provide a basis for overriding the right to speak anonymously....

Third, Fitzgibbon has not shown that he has exhausted alternate sources of information that would not require imposing on the First Amendment rights of third parties. Other courts have said that “‘an alternative requiring the taking of as many as 60 depositions might be a reasonable prerequisite to compelled disclosure.’” In re Petroleum Products Antitrust Litig., 680 F.2d 5, 9 (2d Cir. 1982), quoting Zerilli v. Smith, 656 F.2d 705, 714 (D.C. Cir.1981). So far as the record reflects, his only discovery efforts to date seeking to obtain Radack’s alleged conspiratorial communications consists of sending her written discovery requests to which, his brief alleges, defendant Radack has refused to respond. His brief further asserts, at 44, 53, 57, without providing admissible evidence to support his contentions, that Radack has been guilty of spoliation and hence cannot be trusted to produce evidence voluntarily. He does not explain why he has not moved to compel discovery from Radack, including, if necessary, pursuing forensic examination of her electronic equipment. Moreover, if Radack has been guilty of spoliation as Fitzgibbon alleges, the sanctions for such spoliation could easily be a sufficient route to establish her liability, making it wholly unnecessary to impose on the free speech rights of innocent third parties. The Eastern District docket sheet does not reflect the filing of any motion to compel discovery or to seek sanctions for alleged spoliation. The very fact that Fitzgibbon has not pursued such alternate means to establish his claims against Radack gives ground to infer that other motives might be afoot.

One hopes that the court already knows and understands this -- but it's good to see Public Citizen and Levy weighing in so clearly. Either way, as Levy reminds us, it's yet another example of how Virginia is a target for libel tourism these days.

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Filed Under: 1st amendment, anonymity, devin nunes, devincow, jesselyn radack, steven biss, subpoena, trevor fitzgibbon
Companies: twitter

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  1. icon
    bhull242 (profile), 26 Feb 2020 @ 2:23pm


    I… what? I don’t even think that contains any accurate statement of what Twitter is or what it was supposed to be, nor does it describe what I consider to be “sensible” design for the platform, especially considering what Twitter was intended for, but even if you were right on all that, it would have no impact on this situation at all. So it’s not just wrong, it’s wronger than wrong and irrelevant.

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