Judge Won't Force Twitter to Reveal Anonymous Trolls

Twitter - H 2014
AP Images

Twitter - H 2014

Who is the anonymous person tweeting that Music Group Macao CEO Uli Behringer engages with prostitutes and evades taxes?

The company, which supplies audio equipment including loudspeakers, amplifiers and mixers, is no closer to finding out after a federal judge in San Francisco refused to order Twitter to reveal the individual(s) behind @NotUliBehringer and @FakeUli.

In a ruling on Monday, U.S. District Judge Laurel Beeler expressed her concern that breaching anonymity "would unduly chill speech and deter other critics from exercising their First Amendment rights.”

Yes, anonymous trolls enjoy rights too.

Last April, Music Group Macao was so concerned with them that it filed a defamation lawsuit against "John Does" over tweets that said the company "designs its products to break in 3-6 months" and "encourages domestic violence and misogyny."

After a judge in Washington granted expedited discovery, the decision on whether or not to enforce subpoenas against Twitter landed with Judge Beeler, who got some encouragement from Twitter to make a First Amendment analysis before the company spilled the beans.

She did so with gusto.

"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 commercial criticism," the judge writes.

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

As for tweets that Behringer evades taxes or travels internationally while concealing things inside his body, Beeler says, "The first comment is troubling, the latter merely crass. But they are both onetime comments. Even the tax-evasion remark would likely be read as what it is: one rant among countless others from someone with an obvious grudge against Music Group's CEO. The court does not think that, in the eyes of an ordinary person, this one-time comment would lower the CEO in the community's estimation."

The judge thinks that a tweet from @FakeUli stating that Music Group "encourages domestic violence and misogyny" is a tougher call, potentially rising to an actionably defamatory remark. But she notes that the tweet included a shortened URL that brings those who click on it to a video of a man who is so busy using his Music Group mixer that he ignores a woman attempting to convince him to leave the house. Eventually, this woman begins throwing stuff at him and eventually fires a gun. The bullet ricochets off the impregnable mixer and the woman falls dead.

Judge Beeler writes:      

"The point is that the video is comedic. (Whether funny or not is another question.) In this context, there is no way to see @FakeUli’s comment as anything other than joking and ironic. It does not fall outside the First Amendment for being in poor taste."

As a result, anonymity triumphs.

Email: Eriq.Gardner@THR.com
Twitter: @eriqgardner