Skip to comments.Suit against blogger weaves legal web in Paris, Texas
Posted on 09/30/2007 1:41:32 PM PDT by narses
An unlikely Internet frontier is Paris, Texas, population 26,490, where a defamation lawsuit filed by the local hospital against a critical anonymous blogger is testing the bounds of Internet privacy, First Amendment freedom of speech and whistle-blower rights.
A state district judge has told lawyers for the hospital and the blogger that he plans within a week to order a Dallas Internet service provider to release the blogger's name. The blogger's lawyer, James Rodgers of Paris, said Tuesday he will appeal to preserve the man's anonymity and right to speak without fear of retaliation.
Rodgers said the core question in the legal battle is whether a plaintiff in a lawsuit can "strip" a blogger of anonymity merely by filing a lawsuit. Without some higher standard to prove a lawsuit has merit, he said, defamation lawsuits could have a chilling effect on Internet free speech.
"Anybody could file a lawsuit and say, 'I feel like I've been defamed. Give me the name,' " Rodgers said.
But there is little case law in Texas or nationally to give judges a standard for when to expose anonymous postings on the Internet.
"Right now it's a very murky area of the law," Rodgers said this week.
Since March 2005, The-Paris-site blog has been relentlessly critical of the business management and health care provided by the Paris Regional Medical Center, owned by Essent Healthcare Inc. of Nashville, Tenn.
"Quality issues are in play, patients are avoiding the facilities unless they have no choice, and employees are only staying because their families anchor them, not because of any loyalty to Essent," is a mild example from an April blog posting.
Commenters targeted, too The blogger identifies himself under pseudonyms of fac_p and Frank Pasquale. Most blog commenters some of whom appear to be hospital employees are anonymous.
In June, Essent filed a defamation lawsuit in state district court against "John Does 1-10" for postings and comments made on the Paris blog, which the suit says has had 169,272 page views "from sites throughout the United States and the rest of the world" since it began. The lawsuit also claims patient privacy was violated under the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, HIPPA.
"We understand and respect the blogger and general public's right to voice their opinions about PRMC and welcome constructive criticism," the company said in a statement issued this week.
"However, the method used by the defendants is wholly unacceptable. It is a cowardly infringement on the confidentiality rights of PRMC patients and an unwarranted attack on the reputation of the hospital."
The company claims in one instance, the blog posted enough information on a patient death to identify the patient before the family was notified.
Essent asked District Judge Scott McDowell to order a Dallas Internet Service Provider to release the blogger's name. Federal law bars an ISP from releasing the name of a customer without a court order. McDowell on Monday notified lawyers for Essent and for the blogger that he will be issuing such an order within the next week.
"The only thing this might do is silence an open criticism of Essent's method of doing business," fac_p said on the blog in reaction to the judge's notice.
Fac_p said on his blog that what Essent really wants is the names of hospital employees who have posted comments on his site or given him information. Rodgers said these employees could be considered whistle-blowers.
Spokeswoman Kim Fox said Essent is pleased that McDowell will order the release of the blogger's name, because now the lawsuit can proceed.
Fox said Essent's biggest concern is that the blogger has said some hospital employees have given him patient records. Even though they have not been posted on the blog, Fox said this represents a violation of federal law and the company needs to find the employees who are doing it.
But Rodgers said the next step will be some sort of appeal. He said the problem is that Texas has no appeal procedure for an anonymous defendant who actually hasn't been served the lawsuit.
Lawsuit part of trend The blogger's lawyer said he is studying how to appeal to the 6th Court of Appeals in Texarkana or to file a lawsuit in federal court. He said he also hopes groups that deal with free speech and Internet privacy issues will get involved.
Rodgers said the question is not whether a plaintiff in a defamation lawsuit should be able to get the name of an anonymous blogger, but "what hoops they have to jump through" before violating the blogger's free speech rights.
The number of corporate and political lawsuits around the country against "John Doe" bloggers has been growing dramatically since 2000, said University of Florida law professor Lyrissa Barnett Lidsky, an expert on these types of lawsuits.
Lidsky, a Texas native and graduate of the University of Texas law school, said most Internet libel lawsuits are brought to "chill the speech of bloggers," though some involve genuine defamation.
"It is evolving. You're seeing courts struggling to accommodate different interests," Lidsky said. "On the one hand, you do have a right to speak anonymously. On the other hand, you do not have the right to defame people."
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Interesting. If HIPPA was violated that is a very serious issue, but I think it is more likely that that accusation is a ruse to get names.
health care run a muck
My advice is use Firefox and TOR to create/post anon to blogs or forums.
“If HIPPA was violated that is a very serious issue...”
My doctor’s office breaks confidentiality all the time. When I go to the doctor, first I stand in line to make the co-pay — same is true of the drugstore. There is a line taped to the floor where people have to stand so that they cannot learn my identity. Then I go sit down. When it’s my time to either see the doctor, or collect my prescription, a clerk in a very loud voice calls out my name. I don’t particularly care one way or the other if anyone knows who I am and which doctor I’m seeing — it’s just ridiculous that they go through the hypocrisy with my checking in and then broadcasting my name a few minutes later.
IMHO, each case should be judged individually. There are internet stalkers who go after innocent people from pure spite. They trash their names, their personal and professional reputations without any truth, but employers and associates can read it and possibly believe it. There are many examples of innocent people who have been grievously harmed both financially and personally by some anonymous internet nut who's out to get them.
And then there are the honest whistleblower types that preform a valuable public service, and yet can't afford to be sued.
The whole question calls for the wisdom of Solomon, and I doubt we'll get that.
Anything short of the truth, is asking for trouble.
This is interesting.
I recently had a case on my blog that will, heh, likely never get this kind of publicity. But it was perplexing.
I do a lot of true crime posts on my Blog. On one such true crime post I had a commenter go on some kind of rant or another about a local business near him or her that was being run by some kind of alleged pervert.
The commenter included a link to an article and it linked to a newspaper story about a former male star of some kind of daytime soap opera (kind of famous guy if you’re into soap operas. I’ll not use his name but he’d be easy to find). The newspaper article, very legitimate, was about this daytime soap opera (General Hospital I think...I really don’t remember the guy’s name right now) was charged for taping a teenage girl while she changed costumes in his and his wife’s dance studio. The article said he was charged with the crime and it was a legitimate article and listed a police source.
So evidently this soap star and his wife closed down that dance studio and opened up another one close to where the commenter lived. The commenter was livid that this pervert was opening yet another business near him and that the children were in danger....yada, yada.
The only connection this commenter had to the post on which he or she was making these comments was my post too had a blurb on a local merchant being charged with perverted acts. NOT the soap opera star.
Anyway I let the commenter rant as a legitimate link to a news article had been provided and the commenter seemed sincere, providing the name and address of the dance studio and all that. Well it IS a true crime post and by me a true crime was being committed.
Thus and so soon enough the owners of that dance studio contacted me and told me they were going to institute legal action against me if I didn’t a)-provide them with the ISP of the commenter and b)-remove all of those comments immediately.
Well hell I was just about to delete the commenter’s comments because I didn’t know if the allegations were true or not but one remark in the dance studio owners’ email bothered me. They accused the commenter of using links to “bogus” news stories. So before I deleted the comments I checked out the commenter’s link provided and it was legitimate as all get out!
So I wrote back whoever was sending me the email, either that General Hospital star or his wife I’m not sure, and stated that their claim that the commenter was linking to a bogus story was wrong. I’d checked out the newspaper and even wrote the reporter an email to verify that it was legit.
Well don’t these people write me back and then I get a whole nother story... The General Hospital star says the charge were spurious and were not prosecuted. That email went on and on giving me reasons why that arrest for vid-taping that teenager was erroneous, that the camera was just a store camera. I don’t know, it was vague and someone was trying to blow smoke in my eyes. First they tell me it’s a bogus news story but when I challenge that assertion then they say...”well it don’t matter because charges were dropped, the teenager was mistaken..” I paraphrase but yada...yada.
So hey, these people wanted me to take down a commenter’s comment on my Blog for lying yet aren’t they just lying like dogs all over the place? Further, if they were so desperately peeing on my feet whilst telling me it was raining then I got to wonder if that commenter wasn’t on to something.
So I wrote back and said in view of the fact that they tried to mislead me about the commenter’s link I would not take down the comments that so offended them. Their response was to threaten me with serious legal action, death by lethal injection...yada...yada. They demanded I provide them with the commenter’s ISP and delete the comments on my Blog.
Once again I wrote back and number one...I don’t know how to give them the commenter’s ISP and I was enraged that they kept insisting that I do. Now I can get a commenter’s ISP, at least as I know how, but it’s only through SiteMeter and then it’s only a guess. I suppose Blogspot could get the commenter’s ISP, I didn’t know, and I told them to knock it off with the threats.
Well as it all turned out the commenter did post some unjustified things about this soap star’s wife....some things that couldn’t be verified. The commenter said the soap star’s wife didn’t pay her bills and cheated people, a whole bunch of stuff that...well to my non-legal eyeballs it was questionable.
My reponse to it all was to go ahead and delete the comments because, frankly to anyone still reading this, it just wasn’t worth my battle. If that commenter really had the goods on these people then my Blog was not the place to throw them out of business. As it was all the commenter had was a link to that one newspaper article and the rest of the comments were one person’s opinions and charges. ALTHOUGH, remember here, that those folks with the dance studio deliberately LIED to me at first and there’s no other reason for this than to intimidate me, a humble Blogger read by two to three people every day.
I guess I’m saying I threw in the towel but let me say that somewhere in New Jersey I really think there is a dance studio being run by a pervert.
I’m betting that fabulous soap star paid off that teenager he taped while she changed clothes. Just a hunch my true crime writing self.
In addition, bloggers need to use the rules of reporting - learn how to use words and phrases like: "it has been alleged" "I overheard" "I wonder if" "What if..."
Never accuse outright - pose as questions, as queries, etc
Don’t they have demurrers is Texas?