There’s lots of great news on the topic of my subpoena. The first is that three legal groups have all swooped in to save me (and cvillenews.com) from myself: Public Citizen, the ACLU of Virginia, and the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. Paul Levy, Rebecca Glenberg, and Josh Wheeler—from each organization, respectfully—have put in some late nights and some hard work in the past couple of weeks, as they’ve researched, written, and debated their way to producing what is clearly a very, very strong motion. It’s clear is that they believe in the principle of this thing. We have an opportunity to set a legal precedent for bloggers, so that anybody will think twice before subpoenaing a blogger, blog commenter, or blog reader.
Here’s the press release from Public Citizen:
Court Should Not Force Virginia Blogger to Surrender Notes or Identify Anonymous Comments
Freedom of the Press Protects ‘Non-Traditional’ Journalists Too
WASHINGTON, D.C. – A Charlottesville blogger has the same rights as a mainstream journalist and cannot be forced to release his notes or identify people who posted anonymously on his Web site, Public Citizen, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia and the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression said in a brief filed today in a Virginia circuit court.
The same reporters privilege that protects newspaper and TV journalists under Virginia law applies to Waldo Jaquith, who runs cvillenews.com, said Public Citizen attorney Paul Alan Levy, who represents Jaquith, along with Josh Wheeler of the Thomas Jefferson Center and Rebecca Glenberg of the ACLU of Virginia.
Thomas Garrett, an author, actor, radio personality and self-described Hollywood publicist, subpoenaed Jaquith’s notes and Internet records after Jaquith wrote about a defamation suit Garrett had filed against The Hook, a Charlottesville alternative weekly. Garrett’s subpoena seeks identifying information for anyone who posted comments about or even looked at Jaquith’s blog entry on the suit. It also seeks any e-mails to or from Jaquith relating to Garrett or the defamation suit, and any documents “relating to information obtained, generated or created in writing the [cvillenews.com] article.”
“One of our country’s founding values is that the person standing on the soapbox in the town square has the same freedom of speech they have at The New York Times or the Toledo Blade, for that matter,” Levy said. “Bloggers such as Jaquith may not be ‘traditional’ journalists but they play an integral part in the way people get their news today.”
The brief also argues that the subpoenaed documents are irrelevant to Garrett’s defamation suit against The Hook. “It is difficult to see how comments that were written and posted nearly nine months after the alleged defamation took place could have any relevance to this sort of cause of action,” Wheeler said.
Further, the brief argues that commenters on Jaquith’s blog have a First Amendment right to do so anonymously and Garrett has provided no evidence on why they should be unmasked.
“If this subpoena is allowed to stand, bloggers will have to look over their shoulders whenever they write about a pending lawsuit,” said Kent Willis, director of the ACLU of Virginia. “The chilling effect could be devastating.”
Though it was awfully interesting dealing with this case pro se, it quickly became clear to me that I could set the wrong precedent if I messed things up. The stakes are too high for me to be playing lawyer. I’m enormously grateful to these three individuals and groups for their hard work and commitment, particularly on such short notice. They’ve sacrificed time with their families, missed some home-cooked meals, and doubled down on their workload. Other than by making contributions to their respective organizations—something that I certainly intend to do—it’ll be tough to figure out how to repay them for their kindness.
The next step is a court hearing, when we’ll debate this thing in open court in Buckingham. That was scheduled for next Thursday, but I understand that it may now be rescheduled.