Court Upholds Right of Blogger to Remain Anonymous, Criticize Warren Officials
DETROIT – In a victory for free speech, a Macomb County Court upheld the right of a blogger to remain anonymous and criticize the City of Warren’s assistant attorney. The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan is representing a blogger who was targeted in a defamation lawsuit by the city attorney demanding that he reveal his identity after posting unfavorable remarks to a message board dedicated to the discussion of local public affairs.
“Keeping in line with a rich history of court decisions upholding anonymous political speech, the judge today rejected the assistant attorney’s attempts to bully members of the public into silence,” said Bill Burdett, ACLU of Michigan cooperating attorney of the law firm Boyle Burdett. “The decision sends a clear message to our elected and appointed officials that they cannot use lawsuits to silence public criticism.”
In February 2011, the blogger posted an article on the message board www.warrenforum.net questioning the legitimacy of Assistant City Attorney Ronald Papandrea’s bankruptcy filings. The blogger’s post alleged that the Papandrea had arranged to retire, file for bankruptcy and then be rehired after his debts were discharged.
Soon after the article and link were posted, Papandrea subpoenaed the Internet service provider for information that would reveal the identity of the blogger. The ACLU represented the blogger in asking Circuit Judge Diane Druzinski to quash the subpoena and dismiss the case on First Amendment grounds.
In an April 2011 article published in The Macomb Daily, Papandrea acknowledges that his intention for filing the lawsuit is to censor critics on the message board. He is quoted as saying, “I think the web site has an undue influence on Warren politics – a bad influence. . . . If I can expose it for what it is, people are going to have to debate the real issues. Politicians in this city live in fear of this web site and it affects what they do.”
On Friday, attorneys for Papandrea dismissed the defamation case voluntarily after Judge Druzinski quashed the subpoena.
“Free speech is the bedrock of our Constitution and our democracy,” said Burdett. “Since the founding of our nation, anonymous speech has played a significant role in politics. In fact, the Federalist Papers, which argued for the ratification of the Constitution, were written anonymously by our founding fathers.”
For years, the ACLU of Michigan has worked with policy makers to pass laws protecting against lawsuits intended to censor protected speech by burdening speakers with the costs of defending themselves against frivolous claims. Approximately half the states in our country have laws protecting citizens who speak out on matters of public concern from “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation” (SLAPP), however, anti-SLAPP bills introduced in Michigan have not received a legislative hearing.
In addition to Burdett, the blogger is represented by Dan Korobkin, ACLU of Michigan staff attorney.
Read the opinion and order quashing the subpoena
Read the ACLU’s Motion for Summary Disposition