SALT LAKE CITY (CN) – Koch Industries, which Greenpeace has labeled as a major financial supporter for groups opposed to global warming, cannot sue over a hoax that falsely announced the company would become a champion of climate science, a federal judge ruled.
The lawsuit, pitting organization Youth for Climate Truth against billionaire-brothers Charles and David Koch’s private conglomerate, treaded First Amendment grounds for its connection to protected speech on the Internet.
Last December, the defendants launched a fake press release and website, posing as Koch, in which they announced that said the company would stop funding organizations that denounce climate change. They used Koch’s logos in the efforts and said the company was changing its position on global warming and environmental policy.
Koch took exception to the antics and fired back with a lengthy complaint.
The anonymous defendants countered that their actions were protected political speech. The hoax also failed to fool any media outlets that covered their shenanigans, according to the ruling.
During the few hours that it was live, Youth for Climate Truth’s fake website, koch-inc.com, was denounced as a hoax almost immediately by The New York Times, The Economist, The Hill and others.
For the actions, Koch claimed trademark infringement, violation of the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act, unfair competition, violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and breach of the terms and conditions of its website, Kochind.com. It demanded the defendants’ identities and subpoenaed Utah-based companies Fast Domain, the domain-registration company that the pranksters used, and BlueHost.com, the web-hosting company used to set up the fake website.
Koch claimed that the defendants issued the press release and set up the website to deceive the public, to disrupt Koch’s business and reputation, and to draw attention to and funding for Youth for Climate Truth.
The defendants argued that the website constituted political speech protected by the First Amendment, not unprotected commercial speech. They filed a motion requesting to quash the subpoenas releasing their identities, but revealed their group’s name.
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball concluded that the website and press release did not relate to any goods or services, and, thus, were only political in nature.
“Given that Defendants set up and operated the website completely anonymously, the only agenda they could have been promoting was the message, not any entity,” Kimball ruled. “The website, for the few hours it was up and running, did not solicit funding or provide any method by which donations could be made. Defendants’ anonymity would have made donations impossible.”
Citing Utah Lighthouse Ministry v. F.A.I.R., he added, “the defendant in a trademark infringement and unfair competition case must use the mark in connection with the goods or services of a competing producer, not merely to make a comment on the trademark owner’s goods or services.”
Kimball continued: “Moreover, the court fails to see any allegation that Defendants’ conduct interfered with Koch’s business activities. Defendants’ press release related only to Koch’s political views and activities. There was not even any reference to any of Koch’s products or business practices. Furthermore, none of the media outlets who received the press release believed it.”
The judge concluded the ruling by addressing Koch’s demand for the farceurs’ identities.
“A growing number of courts have recognized that civil subpoenas seeking information regarding anonymous speakers raise First Amendment concerns,” he wrote.
Citing Doe v. 2theMart.com, Kimball said, “If Internet users could be stripped of [their] anonymity by a civil subpoena enforced under the liberal rules of civil discovery, this would have a significant chilling effect on Internet communications and thus on basic First Amendment rights.”
Kimball quashed the previously allowed subpoenas, granted the defendants’ request for a protective order preventing the disclosure of their names and dismissed Koch’s complaint in total.