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Twitter Trolls Have Constitutional Rights

(CN) - Twitter users' anonymous comments criticizing a music company's products are "legitimate commercial speech," and are protected by the First Amendment, a federal judge ruled.

Music Group Macao Commercial Offshore Ltd. and its CEO Uli Behringer filed a federal defamation lawsuit against John Does in April 2014 for tweets claiming that the company "designs its products to break in 3-6 months," "encourages domestic violence and misogyny," and that Behringer "engages with prostitutes."

Because the Twitter accounts are anonymous, Music Group has been unable to serve the defendants, but was granted expedited discovery by the Seattle Federal Court to determine their identities.

Nonparty Twitter did not produce the requested information, prompting the plaintiffs to seek enforcement of two subpoenas to compel the social media website to disclose the identity of the anonymous Twitter user(s) behind @NotUliBehringer and @FakeUli.

The decision whether to enforce the subpoenas was brought before U.S. District Judge Laurel Beeler in San Francisco, who ruled that breaching anonymity would "unduly chill speech and deter other critics from exercising their First Amendment rights."

"The challenged speech here consists mainly of flatly derogatory statements about Music Group's CEO, and, apparently to a lesser degree, some criticism of the company's products that likely constitutes legitimate criticism," Beeler wrote in her March 2.

Unflattering tweets about Music Group's business practices and products are clearly protected by the First Amendment, Beeler said.

The judge did not expatiate upon the prostitution allegation in her 9-page ruler. But she followed the URL link that appeared after the "domestic violence and misogyny" allegation. Beeler said the short video ad it led to was "comedic" and "ironic," though "whether funny or not is another question."

"It does not fall outside the First Amendment for being in poor taste."

She refused to enforce the subpoena and denied Music Group's motion to transfer the case to Seattle.

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