By Chuck Lindell
Originally published Aug. 29, 2014
An Ohio company, seeking to sue a sharply critical blogger who wrote under a pseudonym, cannot use the Texas courts to discover the online author’s identity, a divided Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday.
The 5-4 decision voided a Harris County district judge’s ruling that ordered Google Inc., which operated the blog’s online home, to disclose the blogger’s name and address so the company would know who to sue for defamation and business disparagement.
To order such pre-lawsuit disclosures, however, a Texas court must first establish that the person targeted for a lawsuit has ties to Texas — otherwise state courts lack jurisdiction in the case, said Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, writing for the majority.
“We recognize that this burden may be heavier in a case like this, in which the potential defendant’s identity is unknown and may even be impossible to ascertain. But even so, (Texas) does not guarantee access to information for every petitioner who claims to need it,” Hecht wrote.
The blogger, writing under the name Trooper, submitted a sworn affidavit arguing that Texas courts lacked jurisdiction because he did not live or in Texas.
Justice Debra Lehrmann, writing in dissent, said the ruling will cripple the ability to sue for online defamation, “effectively extinguishing the claims of those who have the misfortune of being defamed by one who conceals his identity.”
“With the simple touch of a button, an anonymous speaker can disseminate defamatory statements to millions of readers, ruining reputations and sabotaging careers,” Lehrmann wrote. “To make matters worse … anonymous online statements — and the people who issue them — are impossible to track without the help of the Internet service provider.”
Because the court ruled on narrow grounds, it did not resolve the most compelling — and potentially far-reaching — aspect of the case: Trooper’s claim that he had a First Amendment right to remain anonymous because, he said, Internet speech in blogs and chat rooms is the modern equivalent of political pamphleteering.
The disagreement began when Trooper launched a now-discontinued blog in 2007 that was particularly critical of Robert Brockman, who had acquired Reynolds & Reynolds, an Ohio-based software company, earlier that year and became its chairman and chief executive officer.
Trooper blamed Brockman for lost customers, a sharp decline in product quality and poor employee morale at the maker of computer management systems for auto dealerships. He also called Brockman “an ‘idiot,’ a ‘lunatic’ and a ‘crook,’ and compared him to Bernie Madoff, Satan and Bobo the Clown,” Hecht noted.
In 2010, the company and Brockman filed suit in Houston — where Brockman owned a house — seeking to force Google to identify Trooper.
The case was “In re John Doe, aka Trooper,” No. 13-0073.