Court dismisses case against AOL member

A Virginia court dismisses a Pennsylvania woman's attempt to reveal the identity of an America Online member who posted critical remarks about her on his Web site.

Jim Hu Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Jim Hu
covers home broadband services and the Net's portal giants.
Jim Hu
2 min read
A Virginia court has dismissed a Pennsylvania woman's attempt to reveal the identity of an America Online member who posted critical remarks about her on his Web site.

A judge from the Circuit Court of Loudoun County dismissed the lawsuit filed by Joan Orie-Melvin for lack of jurisdiction. The judge said the anonymous AOL member was a resident of Pennsylvania and that none of the parties affected resided in Virginia.

Orie-Melvin, a judge in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, was seeking damages from the AOL member who criticized her on his Web site. She also served AOL a subpoena to reveal the member's true identity.

Because AOL is based in Dulles, Virginia, Orie-Melvin's attorneys took the case to a local court.

"When this case was initiated, we had an unknown defendant at an unknown location, and the access to the Internet is throughout the world," said Bob Beagan, Orie-Melvin's Virginia-based attorney. "So the best place in our opinion was where the server was located in Loudoun County, Virginia."

Orie-Melvin alleged that "John Doe's" postings on his AOL Web site, called "Grant Street 1999," were defamatory. The American Civil Liberties Union, which helped defend him in court, said Doe's writings were just criticism of a public official, a right granted by the First Amendment.

"Shame on Orie-Melvin," John Doe wrote on his site. "This is exactly the kind of misconduct by our elected officials that the residents of Allegheny County will not stand for anymore?and a good reason why judges should be held accountable for their actions and remembered at the polls at retention time."

AOL will not reveal member identities unless the company is requested to do so under a legal process, said AOL spokesman Rich D'Amato. AOL will comply with criminal cases; but for civil cases, it will notify the member that he or she has 14 days to challenge a subpoena. If the member decides to do so, AOL will wait for a court order before revealing the name.

AOL has come under fire in the past for revealing a user's name. Last year, the company revealed to U.S. Navy investigators the identity of a Naval officer who typed "gay" under "Marital Status" in his AOL profile. The Navy ordered the discharge of officer Timothy McVeigh of Hawaii after an AOL employee disclosed his identity without asking the investigator to identify himself.

AOL later admitted that a customer service representative violated the company's privacy policy by divulging a member's private information.

Orie-Melvin's attorneys plan to pursue the case in Pennsylvania.