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Defamation Claims Not Enough to ID Blogger

SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) - An anonymous blogger's identity will remain secret for now, a federal judge ruled, finding that the blogger's First Amendment rights outweigh discovery needs in a defamation case.

"The court may also examine the possibility that disclosure will deter other would-be critics or bloggers from exercising their First Amendment rights," the decision states.

Identified only by the pseudonym "Skywalker," the blogger is allegedly one of many bloggers who wrote disparaging comments in November 2010 about the Art of Living Foundation. The foundation's founder, spiritual leader Ravi Shankar, who bears no relation to the renowned sitarist of the same name, claims the bloggers are disgruntled former students. They allegedly exposed trade secrets by publishing the foundation's spiritual materials and portrayed it as "a manipulative and abusive cult," according to the complaint.

Google and Automattic, which own the blogs in question, issued subpoenas to identify the authors. U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh found last week that the foundation's discovery needs do not trump First Amendment protections. "Given that AOLF has chapters in 140 countries and is 'one of the United Nations' largest volunteer-based NGOs,' Skywalker's condemnation of the organization is clearly a matter of public interest," she wrote. "Contrary to plaintiff's assertions, evidence of copyright infringement does not automatically remove the speech at issue from the scope of the First Amendment."

"Even if Skywalker's speech is not 'political' or 'religious,' as he has argued, it at least raises significant constitutional issues," she added.

The 16-page ruling cites a 9th Circuit finding in the contentious Perry v. Schwarzenegger case, concerning California's Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage. Koh focused on the federal appeals court's finding that disclosing the identities of Prop. 8 proponents would have "a chilling effect on political association."

"While Perry did not involve compelled discovery of an anonymous speaker's identity, its analysis suggests that where substantial First Amendment concerns are at stake, courts should determine whether a discovery request is likely to result in chilling protected activity," Koh wrote.

Skywalker's identity will remain hidden for now, but his true name may be revealed as the case progresses. "Of course, if defendants' pending motions are unsuccessful, disclosure of Skywalker's identity may be necessary in order to conduct a pre-trial deposition and to enforce any judgment ultimately obtained against him," Koh wrote.

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