Manhattan’s Supreme Court has ruled that Google must surrender the name of the blogger behind Skanks in NYC, which was hosted on their Blogger platform (but is no longer active). The ruling came in response to Canadian model Liskula Cohen, who the blogger allegedly accused of being a skank (apparently while she was in NYC).
The first reaction of many freedom-loving people upon seeing a story like this is to worry about limits to the first amendment – especially as it pertains to emerging online environments. After all, doesn’t an individual have the right to post anonymous speech? This particular case, however, isn’t quite so simple.
First, the blogger in question was posting on someone else’s platform – in this case, Google’s – so they transfer many of their rights to that host. Google fighting to keep their identity private was probably a good business decision, but in no way an obligation.
Second, the court ruling did not force the blog to stop publishing or stay down (which could have violated the US Supreme Court’s ban on prior restraint of speech). All it did was ask the person to come from behind the curtain.
Cohen and her legal team will likely pursue a defamation of character suit against the blog – claiming that she is not, in fact, “a psychotic, lying, whoring, still going to clubs at her age, skank” – as the blog describes her.
The Manhattan Supreme Court Ruling doesn’t judge Cohen’s defamation case – and, based on previous US Supreme Court case law, as a public figure her burden of proof is high. Essentially, Cohen must prove that Skanks in NYC acted with “actual malice” – that they knowingly portrayed her as a skank even though they knew, factually, that she was in fact not a skank.
It’s a tough case but one Cohen has every right to pursue – but there can’t be a case without a defendant, and the identity of that defendant has implication on their knowledge of Cohen’s skankiness or lack thereof. The Manhattan ruling is the equivalent of a search or arrest warrant – since there may have been an offense committed, they are allowing Cohen’s legal team to pull back the curtain and investigate.
Depending on the circumstances, I would tend to side with the blogger – for many of the reasons outlined by his or her attorney, according to CNET:
The lawyer also offered the view that blogs have “mere venting purposes, affording the less outspoken a protected forum for voicing gripes, leveling invective, and ranting about anything at all.”
I doubt anyone will look at Cohen any differently because of this blog. Most smart people take blogs with a grain of salt commensurate in size with the reputation of the blogger. I never saw Skanks in NYC (at least, not the blog) but would imagine most of its fan base read the posts to laugh.
The US Supreme Court has warned about the “chilling effect” limits on free speech would have, and for that reason all courts must be careful – especially when considering cases like this. Popular free speech rarely has to be defended; it’s the unpopular speech that tests our societal resolve for open discussion.
The Manhattan Supreme Court has ruled that the case is at least worth taking a look at – and that Cohen deserves her day in court, regardless of the outcome. And, so far, that is all they have ruled.