Virginia’s highest court recently held that Yelp could not be forced to turn over the identities of anonymous online reviewers that a Virginia carpet-cleaning owner claimed tarnished his business.
In the summer of 2012, Joseph Hadeed, owner of Hadeed Carpet Cleaning, sued seven anonymous Yelp reviewers after receiving a series of critical reviews. Hadeed alleged that the reviewers were competitors masking themselves as Hadeed’s customers and that his sales tanked after the reviews were posted. Hadeed sued the reviewers as John Doe defendants for defamation and then subpoenaed Yelp, demanding that it reveal the reviewers’ identities.
Yelp argued that, without any proof that the reviewers were not Hadeed’s customers, the reviewers had a First Amendment right to post anonymously.
A Virginia trial court and the Court of Appeals sided with Hadeed, ordering Yelp to turn over the reviewers’ identities and holding it in contempt when it did not. But in April 2015, the Virginia Supreme Court vacated the lower court decisions on procedural grounds. Because Virginia’s legislature did not give Virginia’s state courts subpoena power over non-resident non-parties, the Supreme Court concluded, the Virginia trial court could not order the California-headquartered Yelp to produce documents located in California for Hadeed’s defamation action in Virginia.
Although the decision was a victory for Yelp, it was a narrow one, resting on procedural grounds. The Virginia Supreme Court did not address the broader First Amendment argument about anonymous posting and noted that it wouldn’t quash the subpoena because Hadeed could still try to enforce it under California law.
After the ruling, Yelp’s senior director of litigation, Aaron Schur, posted a statement on the company’s blog stating that, if Hadeed pursued the subpoena in California, Yelp would “continue to fight for the rights of these reviewers under the reasonable standards that California courts, and the First Amendment, require (standards we pushed the Virginia courts to adopt).” Schur added, “Fortunately the right to speak under a pseudonym is constitutionally protected and has long been recognized for the important information it allows individuals to contribute to public discourse.”
In 2009, a California law took effect, allowing anonymous Internet speakers whose identity is sought under a subpoena in California in connection with a lawsuit filed in another state to challenge the subpoena and recover attorneys’ fees if they are successful. In his Yelp post, Schur added that Hadeed’s case “highlights the need for stronger online free speech protection in Virginia and across the country.”
Had Hadeed sought to enforce the subpoena in California, the result may have been the same but possibly on different grounds. In California, where Yelp and many other social media companies are headquartered, the company would have been subject to a court’s subpoena power. Still, Yelp may have been protected from having to disclose its users’ identities. California courts have offered protections for anonymous speech under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the state constitutional right of privacy.
Nevertheless, there is no uniform rule as to whether companies must reveal identifying information of their anonymous users. In 2013, in Chevron v. Danziger, federal Magistrate Judge Nathanael M. Cousins of the Northern District of California concluded that Chevron’s subpoenas seeking identifying information of non-party Gmail and Yahoo Mail users were enforceable against Google and Yahoo, respectively, because the subpoenas did not seek expressive activity and because there is no privacy interest in subscriber and user information associated with email addresses.
On the other hand, in March 2015, Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler of the same court held, in Music Group Macao Commercial Offshore Ltd. v. Does, that the plaintiffs could not compel nonparty Twitter to reveal the identifying information of its anonymous users, who, as in the Hadeed case, were Doe defendants. Music Group Macao sued the Doe defendants in Washington federal court for anonymously tweeting disparaging remarks about the company, its employees, and its CEO. After the Washington court ruled that the plaintiffs could obtain the identifying information from Twitter, the plaintiffs sought to enforce the subpoena in California. Magistrate Judge Bheeler concluded that the Doe defendants’ First Amendment rights to speak anonymously outweighed the plaintiffs’ need for the requested information, citing familiar concerns that forcing Twitter to disclose the speakers’ identities would unduly chill protected speech.
Courts in other jurisdictions have imposed a range of evidentiary burdens on plaintiffs seeking the disclosure of anonymous Internet speakers. For example, federal courts in Connecticut and New York have required plaintiffs to make a prima facie showing of their claims before requiring internet service providers (ISPs) to disclose anonymous defendants’ identities. A federal court in Washington found that a higher standard should apply when a subpoena seeks the identity of an Internet user who is not a party to the litigation. The Delaware Supreme Court has applied an even higher standard, expressing concern “that setting the standard too low will chill potential posters from exercising their First Amendment right to speak anonymously.”
These cases show that courts are continuing to grapple with social media as a platform for expressive activity. Although Yelp and Twitter were protected from having to disclose their anonymous users’ identities in these two recent cases, this area of law remains unsettled, and companies with social media presence should be familiar with the free speech and privacy law in the states where they conduct business and monitor courts’ treatment of these evolving issues.