ACLU-NJ Counters Church's Effort to Unmask Online Critic

September 1, 2010

NEWARK — Countering a New Jersey church's unjustified pursuit of an anonymous e-mailer's identity, Public Citizen and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) asked a court this week to rescind a legal order filed by the church and to protect the e-mailer's privacy.

The two groups filed a brief in the Superior Court of New Jersey in Morris County this week, arguing that the church's request for the source of an e-mail blaming poor management at Our Lady of the Magnificat School for declining student enrollment violated the First Amendment.

"The Constitution allows everyone to express an opinion on matters that concern them without worrying about undue retaliation," said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. "Our tradition of anonymous speech reaches back to the publication of the Federalist Papers. No one has the right to intimidate people into silence by threatening to unmask the anonymity they're entitled to."

After several parents of children at the Our Lady of the Magnificat School received an e-mail in February accusing the school of poor management and speculating about student enrollment, the church brought concerns to court in June over slander and potential damage to its reputation.

The court ordered Cablevision, the Internet service provider, to produce documents identifying the critic. Cablevision notified the critic, who contacted Public Citizen and the ACLU-NJ for assistance.

"Established law says that Internet critics cannot be unmasked unless several procedural and substantive protections are met," said Public Citizen attorney Paul Alan Levy. "The requirement that legal and factual merit must be shown before the identity of Internet speakers can be discovered has been the law in New Jersey for nearly a decade."

As ruled in a case that Levy argued a decade ago before New Jersey's Appellate Division, certain criteria must be met for a court to allow the search for an anonymous online commenter's identity to proceed. First, the online commenter must receive notification in order to secure a legal defense. Second, a legal showing must prove the material in question is in fact defamatory. Third, a factual showing must prove the case against the critic is strong. The church in this case has met none of those criteria, Levy said.

The groups are asking the court to vacate its order to Cablevision. They are working with local attorney Richard L. Ravin of Hartman & Winnicki, P.C.

Read the brief online at http://www.citizen.org/documents/In_re_OLM_Brief_Supp_Motion_Reconsideration.pdf

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