Jersey judge shields anonymous blogger

In a free-speech case that has drawn widespread attention, a New Jersey judge has upheld the right of a blogger to criticize county officials anonymously by telling those officials to take their subpoena seeking the author’s identity and put it where the sun don’t shine.

His honor used legalese, of course, but it’s Jersey and that’s what he meant.

From the Asbury Park Press:

Judge Terence Flynn in Freehold ruled to quash a subpoena filed by Manalapan Township against Google, seeking the name and account information of the author of the blog — daTruthSquad -- calling the request "an unjust infringement on the blogger's First Amendment rights."

The subpoena is part of an ongoing lawsuit filed in June against Stuart Moskovitz, a former township attorney and mayor. The township contends Moskovitz botched negotiations for a recreational land purchase in 2005. Attorneys for the township believe Moskovitz is the owner of the blog.

Personally, I am of the opinion that there’s far too much anonymity – and hence lack of accountability – on the Internet. I’ve gone so far as to argue that there are indeed cases where outing an anonymous blogger can be justified – especially by private parties such as the press. However, the bar for the government doing it, in particular, needs to be extraordinarily high, and in this case doesn’t appear to have even gotten off the ground.

From the jump this has been one of those disputes where a distant observer keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop: Certainly the county would have a compelling libel or slander case to make against the anonymous blogger such that a reasonable man – or judge – could entertain the notion of ripping the mask off him.

Not so here. The best the county could offer was speculation that the target of its public lawsuit, attorney and former mayor Moskovitz, is indeed daTruthSquad and that his denial of that fact, if shown to be untrue, would speak to his lack of credibility in their ongoing legal dispute.

"The fact of the matter is that you read that thing and you come to the conclusion that it's either Moskovitz or it's his alter ego," a country attorney said in court. "When you read these blogs . . . da-Mosked Man is da hero of da blog and everybody else is da bad guys."

Call me capricious, but if I’m the judge I rule to quash the county’s subpoena just because its attorney is talking like a juvenile delinquent, even if daTruthSquad uses da same kind of annoying tone on da blog.

However, Judge Flynn had better cause to tell the public officials to buzz off, namely that they had zippo for evidence of their contention, never mind that even if true it wouldn’t rise to justification for denying the blogger his anonymity.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been front and center in keeping Manalapan Township officials off the throat of this lonely pamphleteer. You can read all of the EFF’s legal filings about the case here.

"We're grateful that Judge Flynn upheld the First Amendment rights of our client and recognized that anonymous speakers should not be intimidated into silence through the discovery process," said EFF Staff Attorney Matt Zimmerman in a press release. "Now 'daTruthSquad' can continue to discuss township business without fear of government reprisal."

As for daTruthSquad, well, let’s just say he’s savoring victory.

“Let daTruthSquad make this point perfectly clear to everyone,” writes the still-anonymous blogger. “This is not a victory for just daTruthSquad. It is a victory for all bloggers in the United States and any citizen who has a comment to make that any ego-bruised politician may not like. This is a victory for the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, and it should show all weak-minded politicians you cannot mess with the Founding Fathers of this great nation.”

And that’s da truth.

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