Yahoo doesn’t have to reveal e-mailer’s identity

Monday, August 9, 2010

A high school teacher cannot force Yahoo to reveal the identity of an anonymous individual who sent him disparaging e-mails, a New Jersey appeals court has ruled.

Tom Juzwiak, a high school teacher at Hightstown High School, received an e-mail on July 23, 2009, from someone called “Josh Hartnett” with the e-mail address The e-mail read in the subject line: “Hopefully you will be gone permanently.” The body of the message read: “We are all praying for that.” It was signed only “Josh.”

The anonymous person sent Juzwiak another e-mail on Aug. 11. The subject line read: “I hear Friday is ‘D’ day for you.” The body of the message began: “I certainly hope so. You don’t deserve to be allowed to teach anymore. Not just in Hightstown but anywhere … .”

Finally, the unidentified individual sent an Aug. 13 e-mail criticizing Juzwiak and his teaching abilities to many individuals in the community. Part of it read: “I am not urging anyone to speak out against Mr. J but I urge you to then be silent as we can not continue to allow the children of this school system nor the parents to be subjected to his evil ways.”

Juzwiak filed a lawsuit on Aug. 20 for intentional infliction of emotional distress and harassment against a “John/Jane Doe” defendant. Juzwiak also served a subpoena on Yahoo to force the Internet service provider to reveal the e-mailer’s identity. According to the opinion, “Yahoo notified its subscriber that it had received the subpoena and the subscriber, proceeding as ‘John/Jane Doe,’ moved to quash that subpoena.”

“John/Jane Doe” asserted the First Amendment right to engage in anonymous online speech and contended that Juzwiak had not established the validity of his claims. A trial court disagreed and ordered Yahoo to unveil the source.

The defendant moved for reconsideration, which the trial court denied. However, the trial court did grant the defendant’s motion for a stay pending appeal. That means Yahoo did not have to comply with the subpoena until the appeals court had examined the issue.

On appeal, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, reversed the trial court in its Aug. 3 opinion in Juzwiak v. John/Jane Doe. The appeals court acknowledged that it had to balance Juzwiak’s right to protect his reputation and interests against the defendant’s First Amendment right to speak anonymously.

Juzwiak had also argued that the e-mails were threats not protected by the First Amendment, particularly the first message that read, “Hopefully you will be gone permanently.”

The appeals court rejected the argument that the e-mail was a true threat. “Nothing within the first message, in our judgment, can realistically be understood to constitute a threat to plaintiff’s safety or well-being.”

Next the appeals court examined whether Juzwiak had presented enough evidence that the defendant had committed intentional infliction of emotional distress, a civil cause of action — or tort — in which a person purposely or recklessly causes someone severe emotional distress with outrageous conduct that goes beyond all bounds of decency.

The appeals court applied the standard from Dendrite Int’l Inc. v. John Doe, another New Jersey appeals court case from 2001 that addressed whether a plaintiff could force an ISP to reveal the identity of an anonymous online speaker. In Dendrite, the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, reasoned that before requiring an ISP to reveal one of its subscribers, the plaintiff had to “produce sufficient evidence supporting each element of its cause of action.” If the plaintiff could meet this burden, then the court must balance the defendant’s free-speech rights against the plaintiff’s legal need for disclosure.

Applying the Dendrite standard, the appeals court in the Juzwiak case determined that Juzwiak had not met all the basic elements of an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim. He had not shown that the defendant’s e-mails were extreme and outrageous enough, the court said: “Expressions of anger, without more, are not extreme or outrageous.”

The appeals court also noted that Juzwiak had not presented information on any efforts on his part to try to identify the unknown “Josh.” The court said Juzwiak failed to show that he had looked at a local telephone book, voting records or names of individuals active in the high school’s affairs or students with whom he may have had difficulties.

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