In a notable decision applying First Amendment principles to online news reporting, Jackson Walker persuaded a Texas federal district judge to protect The Dallas Morning News against an attempt to unmask the identities of persons posting anonymously on the internet.
Accepting the newspaper’s First Amendment arguments, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas refused to require disclosure of information identifying persons using screen names to comment on an online article about a controversial lawsuit.
The case was Diamond Consortium Inc. v. Brian Manookian, No. 4:17-MC-13, slip op. at 3–8 (E.D. Tex. Aug. 3, 2017).
The decision stemmed from a lawsuit involving The Diamond Consortium, Inc. d/b/a The Diamond Doctor (“Plaintiff”) which sued a Tennessee-based law firm and two attorneys (“Defendants”). The Diamond Doctor alleged Defendants threatened to bring consumer suits against Plaintiff for over-grading diamonds unless the jewelry retailer paid a monthly retainer for ten years, which amounted to $3 million.
In May 2016, The News published an article on its website detailing the lawsuit on which anonymous users commented. Defendants served The News—a non-party to the lawsuit—with a subpoena seeking the production of information to identify the anonymous commenters. The News objected on First Amendment grounds.
In upholding the newspaper’s right to refuse disclosure, the Eastern District applied a First Amendment test not previously addressed within the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The Eastern District clarified the proper standard to apply when litigants seek the identity of anonymous commenters who are not a party to the underlying lawsuit.
The Dallas Morning News was represented by its long-time outside counsel, Paul C. Watler. A partner with Jackson Walker LLP, Paul focuses his legal practice on complex commercial, media and First Amendment litigation. He has been named by Texas Lawyer magazine as the “Go To” lawyer for media litigation in Texas, placing him among the state’s top 29 lawyers across all practice areas. Paul has also been listed in The Best Lawyers in America since 1995, has been named one of the 250 Best Lawyers in Dallas by D Magazine, and has been named a “Super Lawyer” by Thomson Reuters annually since 2003. Paul received his B.J. degree from the University of Texas and his J.D. from the University of Texas School of Law where he was a member of the Texas Law Review.