On February 10, 2009, the United States District for the District of Columbia dismissed the defamation complaint of the man who posted a YouTube video alleging that he used cocaine with, and performed a sex act on, then-state senator Barack Obama. The matter came before the court on the plaintiff's motion to compel information identifying the individuals who posted anonymous responses to the video in which they alleged that the plaintiff was lying about his allegations and was actually a patient in a mental hospital at the time that he claimed to have encountered now-President Obama. The court rejected the plaintiff's attempt to compel disclosure of the identities of the three anonymous posters and dismissed his complaint.
In January 2008, Plaintiff Lawrence "Larry" Sinclair ("Sinclair") posted the following YouTube video alleging that he met then-state senator Barack Obama in November 1999 and then purchased cocaine from, used cocaine with, and performed a sex act on the man who is now President of the United States:
Three anonymous Internet posters responded to the video, alleging that Sinclair was "Spreading Lies about Obama," calling Sinclair a liar, and alleging that Sinclair was committed to a mental hospital on the date that he claimed to have met the President.
Sinclair filed an action for common law defamation and reckless misrepresentation against the three anonymous posters and then subpoenaed DemocraticUnderground.com, Digg.com, and Google, Inc. (for YouTube) to obtain the true identities of the defendants. Motions to quash the subpoenas were filed and the court addressed Sinclair's motion to compel the disclosure of the identities of the anonymous defendants, the motions to quash, and the merits of Sinclair's complaint together.
After noting the First Amendment's protection of anonymous speech and "the chilling effect that subpoenas seeking the disclosure of anonymous speakers can have on dissenters," the court outlined the three-part test for a qualified privilege against disclosure of anonymous sources in the area of libelous speech Sinclair v. TubeSockTedD, ___ F.Supp.2d ___, 2009 WL 320408, *2 (D.D.C. Feb. 10, 2009). That test requires the party seeking the identity of an anonymous speaker to show "(1) the issue as to which disclosure of the source is sought goes to the heart of the case, (2) disclosure is necessary to prove the issue because the party seeking the information is likely to prevail on all other issues, and (3) all other means of proving the issue have been exhausted." Id. (citations omitted).
The court then outlined two similar standards which "have emerged in cases involving discovery seeking the identification of anonymous Internet speakers." The first standard, first articulated in Dendrite Int'l v. Doe, 342 N.J.Super. 134, 775 A.2d 756, 760-761 (N.J.Super.Ct.App.Div. 2001), requires "(1) that plaintiff undertake to notify the anonymous posters that they are the subject of a subpoena seeking their identity; (2) that the plaintiff specify the exact statement alleged to constitute actionable speech; (3) that the court review the complaint and other information to determine whether a viable claim against the anonymous defendants is presented; (4) that the plaintiff produce sufficient evidence to support prima facie, each element of its cause of action; and (5) that the court then balance the First Amendment right of anonymous speech against the strength of the plaintiff's prima facie claim and the need for disclosure of the anonymous defendant's identity." Id. The second test, first articulated in Doe v. Cahill, 884 A.2d 451, 460 (Del. 2005), "foregoes an explicit balancing of interests but still requires the plaintiff to come forward with sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case on the elements of a claim that are supportable without discovery." Id.
The court concluded that, under either test, Sinclair's action was "fundamentally flawed." First, the court decided that it had no subject-matter jurisdiction over the diversity action filed by Sinclair, since the citizenship of the anonymous defendants was not known. Second, the court concluded that it did not have personal jurisdiction over the defendants since they appeared to lack the necessary minimum contacts with the forum to establish general or specific jurisdiction. Third, the court determined that Sinclair's allegations were insufficient to state a valid cause of action as "the challenged statements [about Sinclair's being a liar] are less an attach on Sinclair's general character and instead a dispute with the accuracy of a specific statement made by him" and "the statement that Sinclair is a former mental patient, although perhaps defamatory, is most probably not actionable because [the defendants] were simply summarizing and reporting information obtained from another content provider." Id. at * 4 (citing 47 U.S.C. § 230(c)(1)).
Because Sinclair had failed to establish a prima facie case on his claims which could survive its jurisdictional flaws, the court concluded that it must reject his attempts to identify the anonymous defendants. As the court stated, "[w]here the viability of a plaintiff's case is so seriously deficient, there is simply no basis to overcome the considerable First Amendment interest in anonymous speech on the Internet." Sinclair plans to appeal the decision.
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