District Court Holds First Amendment Protects Website User Information, Quashes Subpoena
The U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey granted a motion to quash a subpoena duces tecum for postings to an online forum, finding that the posters’ First Amendment rights outweighed the petitioner’s need for the information, and that producing it would be unduly burdensome.
Subpoena Sought for User Information
Emmanuel Lazaridis alleged that he was the complainant and civil participant in a Greek criminal prosecution for defamation against several U.S. citizens. Lazaridis petitioned the court under 28 U.S.C. § 1782 for discovery from the Bring Sean Home Foundation (“BSHF”), a non-profit corporation based in New Jersey that assists victims of international child abduction. According to the court, BSHF, which was run on a part-time volunteer basis, maintained a website with over 40 forums containing thousands of individual posts.
Lazaridis filed an ex parte petition with the district court for discovery on BSHF. The court issued an order allowing Lazaridis to serve a subpoena duces tecum on BSHF for all documents concerning (1) Lazaridis (2) members of BSHF’s website with certain specified user names, (3) the National Centre for Missing in Europe Children, and (4) certain BSHF messages, including authorization, error, and download logs. After it was served, BSHF filed a motion to quash the subpoena.
Website Claims Subpoena is Unreasonable
Lazaridis alleged that he needed access to the information to show harm to his reputation in order for the Greek court to determine the amount of damages. BSHF contended that the subpoena was unduly burdensome under Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 45(c)(3)(A)(iv). An undue burden exists when a subpoena is “unreasonable or oppressive.” Lazaridis at 4 (quoting Schmulovich v. 1161 Rt. 9 LLC, 2007 BL 80012, at 4 (D.N.J. 2007)).
Factors used to determine unreasonableness or oppression, which the moving party has the burden of demonstrating, include “(1) the party’s need for the production; (2) the nature and importance of the litigation; (3) the relevance of the material; (4) the breadth of the request for production; (5) the time period covered by the request; (6) the particularity with which the documents are described; and (7) the burden imposed on the subpoenaed party.” Id.
BSHF argued that, among other things, Lazaridis had no legitimate need for the documents, because much of the information was publicly available by searching the posts on its website. Anyone with Internet access could search all 41 forums on the website, while producing the information would be burdensome, because the backup information was not stored in Structured Query Language (“SQL”) and not available in a readable format.
BSHF also asserted that the request was “extremely broad, unconstrained in time and undiscriminating in its description,” as Lazaridis did not seek individual messages, but rather “an entire universe of documents relating to certain members” and “the underlying electronic data relating to those posts.” Id. at 6.
First Amendment Shields Posters
The court first found that Lazaridis offered no evidence to show the relevance of the documents to the Greek prosecution. The court next found that the request was overly broad and intrusive, noting that the postings were both publicly accessible and not available in bulk in readable format. Finally, the court found that BSHF “raised serious concerns with regard to the First Amendment implications that would arise were [BSHF] to provide private e-mail addresses, names, and ISP addresses to a third party.” Id. at 11.
The court held that Lazaridis did not show a compelling need, especially given the fact that neither BSHF nor its posters were the alleged defaming party in the Greek litigation.
The cost and burden to BSHF, when weighed against the lack of a showing of actual need or relevance of the information sought, coupled with the First Amendment rights that are necessarily implicated, leads this Court to conclude that enforcement of the Subpoena would create an undue burden on BSHF.
Id. Accordingly the court granted the motion to quash the subpoena.
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