A Michigan trial court erred when it allowed the Thomas M. Cooley Law School to unmask an anonymous Internet critic, an intermediate state appeals court has ruled.
The decision by the Michigan Court of Appeals was the latest in the saga of the blogger known by the handle Rockstar05 and his former school — Cooley — which is suing him for defamation. It was a victory for Rockstar05, who now will have the opportunity to ask the trial court to dismiss the complaint against him.
Even so, his lawyer warned that the decision did not go far enough to protect anonymous online speech in Michigan. Paul Alan Levy, an attorney with the Washington-based consumer rights advocacy group Public Citizen, called the outcome a "mixed blessing for anonymous Internet speakers in future cases."
Cooley initially sued Rockstar05 — known in court documents as John Doe 1 — in July 2011 after he started a blog called the Thomas M. Cooley Law School Scam. The site included a litany of complaints against the school involving its graduate employment rates, its admission standards and additional matters. The blog said that Cooley "is without a doubt one of the three worst law schools in the United States," according to the appellate opinion.
Cooley at the time did not know who was behind the blog, and its legal team issued a subpoena seeking his identity from Weebly Inc., the California company that hosted the blog. Rockstarr05′s lawyer immediately moved to quash the subpoena in Michigan, but Cooley sought a separate subpoena from a California court.
In an apparent miscommunication, Weebly administrators disclosed Rockstar05′s email address to Cooley, which cross-referenced its computer records to identify him. Cooley’s lawyers then filed an amended complaint that included Rockstar05 real name. Ingham County, Mich., Circuit Judge Clinton Canady III soon thereafter ordered Rockstar05′s real name to be struck from the record, and heard arguments in his motion to quash Cooley’s subpoena.
The trial judge denied the motion to quash and declined Rockstar05′s motion for a protective order, which opened the door for Cooley to use the information obtained from Weebly. Rockstar05 appealed, and the trial court ruling was stayed pending the appeal. (Cooley’s motion to dismiss the appeal as moot was denied in July 2012.)
The appellate court on April 4 ruled that Canaday was wrong on numerous points, including that Michigan law alone was inadequate to address the legal issues and that the court should apply the Dendrite rule — a standard adopted in other jurisdictions under which Cooley’s lawyers would have to offer evidence that their defamation claims had merit before the court could compel the identification of Rockstar05.
"We disagree with the trial court’s conclusion that Michigan law does not adequately address this situation," the appeal court wrote. "We conclude that Michigan’s procedures for a protective order, when combined with Michigan procedures for summary disposition, adequately protect a defendant’s First Amendment interests in anonymity."
Moreover, the trial court failed to state its reasons for denying Rockstar05′s protective order against Cooley, and incorrectly found that per se defamatory statements are not entitled to protection under the First Amendment.
The appellate court remanded so the lower court could consider whether it has the authority to quash a California subpoena or to apply Michigan law to Rockstar05′s motion for an order or protection. One appellate judge, Jane Beckering, dissented in part, writing that adopting the Dendrite standard in Michigan would be a better approach to balancing the First Amendment rights of a anonymous critic with a plaintiff’s right to pursue allegations of defamation.
Levy said that he and Rockstar05 have not yet decided if they would appeal the outcome to the Michigan Supreme Court in hopes of having the Dendrite standard adopted.
Contact Karen Sloan at firstname.lastname@example.org.