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Several Internet critics who published allegedly defamatory statements about Pennsylvania Superior Court Judge Joan Orie Melvin will not be shielded by their anonymity any longer, a common pleas court judge has ruled. Allegheny County Common Pleas Court Judge Stanton Wettick ruled Nov. 15 that Orie Melvin’s attorneys could get the names of up to 13 critics from America Online for her libel lawsuit. Orie Melvin filed the defamation lawsuit in October 1999 against the person or persons who posted a statement on a Web site saying the judge engaged in activity that violated the judicial code of ethics. The complaint named 13 Doe defendants. In January, the critic writing under the pseudonym “Grant Street 1999″ posted information on an AOL Web site that said Orie Melvin was lobbying Gov. Tom Ridge to appoint a certain lawyer to a vacancy on the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas after Judge Robert Dauer retired. The site gets its name from the Pittsburgh street that is the address of numerous government offices, including the county courthouse. “This is good. The judge now has a chance to vindicate herself,” said John Lacher, Orie Melvin’s attorney. Wettick ruled against the critics’ motion to throw out the case. The judge ruled, however, that the names should be disclosed only to Orie Melvin’s attorneys. Lacher said they might be revealed if the case ever goes to trial. “There is good and bad in this. It is to our knowledge the first formal statement by a court that a speaker is entitled to stay anonymous until a judge has had a chance to toss the case,” said Ronald Barber, the attorney for the creators of Grant Street 1999. Ann Beeson, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney representing the defendants, praised the judge for setting a high standard for obtaining the names. “We agree that if the statements are truly defamatory, the names should come out. We have no problem with that,” Beeson said from New York. Before the ruling, she said, the question was open whether only a lawsuit would be needed to get the names of Internet critics. Wettick had previously stayed discovery requests to obtain the identity of the person or persons who wrote the statement. The Doe defendants claimed revealing the identity of the publisher of the statement would violate the First Amendment. That request was stayed to give the defendants the opportunity to establish through summary judgment proceedings whether Orie Melvin actually engaged in the activities alleged on the Web site. In his most recent opinion, Wettick said Orie Melvin was entitled to know the names of those who wrote the statements for several reasons. “Plaintiff, if not given the opportunity to confront her accusers, can only deny the charges and hope that this is sufficient to persuade the jury,” Wettick wrote. “Also, plaintiff needs to know the identity of the Doe defendants prior to incurring expenses and other burdens of a trial, because it is questionable whether plaintiff would wish to proceed with a trial if John Doe turned out to be, for example, an inmate incarcerated pursuant to a trial before plaintiff.” The Doe defendants argued that anonymous political speech is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Wettick said, however, that the Constitution does not protect “anonymous speech that is defamatory, if untrue.” The court relied heavily on the seminal case focusing on libel — New York Times Co. v. Sullivan — which said that a plaintiff must show actual malice in a libel action brought by a public official. The Doe defendants argued that while New York Times protects the national media, it does nothing to protect the anonymous speaker over the Internet, who fears not the award of money damages but retribution in the form of social ostracism or economic retribution. This punishment occurs, the defendants argued, as soon as the speaker is identified. “According to defendants, a cornerstone of political speech on the Internet is the protection of the speaker’s anonymity,” Wettick wrote. “Without anonymity, speakers will be less willing to express controversial positions because of fears or reprisal.” Wettick said the courts need to set parameters for Internet political speech that will protect the new form of speech. “In the New York Times v. Sullivan line of cases, the Supreme Court balanced the First Amendment protections with the purposes of state libel laws in a way that provided increased protection to the press while preserving the underlying purposes of state libel laws,” Wettick wrote. “There is not an equivalent balancing for anonymous Internet speech.” “If the First Amendment does not permit a plaintiff who is a public figure from learning the identity of the publisher, state libel actions will not be available to discourage anonymous publishers from publishing statements known to be false and made for the purpose of injuring or harming a public official’s reputation and/or exposing the public official to public hatred, contempt and ridicule.” The court said that the standard should be that once a plaintiff has made a prima facie showing that the statement made was false, defamatory and the cause of harm that would support a monetary award, then the Internet speaker would lose his or her anonymity. Lacher said he did not know when he would obtain the names of what Orie Melvin says are 13 of her critics, but he said it would not happen soon. Barber said no decision has been made on whether to appeal the ruling and would not say how many people he represents.

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