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Within hours of a Miami appellate court’s order that Yahoo and America Online must disclose the identities of eight Web critics who allegedly defamed former Hvide Marine boss J. Erik Hvide, Yahoo shut down the Hvide Marine company’s message board where the offending words were posted. The board, where thousands of messages about the ups and downs at international marine services company Hvide Marine of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., were posted during the past few years, was also removed from the Web, and previously posted messages are no longer accessible. Yahoo acted after a three-judge panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeal last Thursday rejected arguments by lawyers for anonymous posters that their identities should be protected until a court evaluated the merits of a lawsuit filed against them by Erik Hvide. Yahoo and AOL remained on the sidelines in the case, telling the courts they would follow whatever ruling was handed down. A spokeswoman for Yahoo, Nicole Waddell, did not respond to a reporter’s questions before deadline. Hvide has claimed, among other things, that the marine services firm fired him because of slanderous information that was posted on Yahoo’s Hvide Marine bulletin board for all to read. Neither Miami lawyer Bruce D. Fischman, who represents Erik Hvide, nor Christopher K. Leigh, the Fort Lauderdale lawyer who represents The1Quiz, the only anonymous Web poster to retain counsel, knew why Yahoo removed the Hvide Marine board. “It wasn’t based on any request from us,” said Fischman. “It may be a matter of Yahoo deciding they don’t want to create a headache for themselves by continuing this forum that has resulted in litigation,” said Leigh. “This may not be the last time a board is taken down. And, indirectly, that accomplishes the point of [those who file suit] — which is to quell any type of criticism of a company.” Web posters, including Hvide Marine investors and employees, reacted quickly to Yahoo’s decision to pull the plug. This newspaper, for example, received an e-mail notification that a new bulletin board had been set up at http://www.quicken.com/boards/list/. The board takes a viewer to a money and investing page that requires the insertion of Hvide Marine’s stock symbol, HVDM. “Since Yahoo removed their message base from the Internet, the voices will not be silenced, there will always be a soap box for someone to stand on and speak their mind,” said a message from a Web poster using the name widowsson1286tx. The 3rd District’s order means Yahoo and AOL must now identify eight anonymous posters to Hvide. And it will happen soon, because “there’s nothing to appeal,” Leigh said. The appellate court affirmed a ruling earlier this year by Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Eleanor Shockett holding that the anonymous Web posters should be unmasked. The ruling was a rejection of an argument by the American Civil Liberties Union, which joined the defense side in February, saying that Web posters enjoyed a so-called “right to anonymity.” Attorneys for Hvide, who filed suit last September, argued that the former Hvide Marine chairman and chief executive had a right to confront his accusers. “This literally sends a message that these judges aren’t adding any elevated First Amendment status to Internet posters, said Fischman. “They’re not getting any special privileges.”
Cyberspace, Privacy and the First Amendment. October 24-November 6.

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