Judge delays ruling on Web site controversy

  By ERIC SLAGLE Daily News Staff Writer

  The operator of a com­munity-based Web site in Elizabeth has been granted extra time to argue that a subpoena ordering him to identify individuals who made anonymous posts on the site violates his and the posters’ First Amendment rights.
  Richard S. Rattanni, who runs the Web site
www. elizabethboro.com


, and his attorney Sara Rose of the American Civil Liberties Union Greater Pittsburgh Chapter were given 21 days to file a brief supporting their position that turn­ing over information that would identify the users of the Web site would strip users of their right to anon­ymous free speech and make it more difficult for Rattanni to offer the online discus­sion board.
  The ACLU had sought a protective order that would permanently safeguard the identities of users.
  Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick ordered the extra time after the ACLU presented its motion Friday in an effort to pre­vent Rattanni from having
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 to disclose the information in a deposition that was set for Monday.
  Rattanni will not have to disclose the identities of the persons posting on the Web site until after the arguments before the judge.
  This latest legal action is in response to a lawsuit filed in November by Forward Township Supervisor Tom DeRosa claiming that he suffered embarrassment and humiliation from defama­tory statements posted by anonymous users on the dis­cussion board.
  DeRosa’s suit is seeking at least $25,000 in damages.
  Some of the anonymous postings against DeRosa accuse him of hiring family members to perform work on a recently completed bridge repair project, and other postings call him a liar.
  DeRosa was not at the hearing.
  His attorney Joseph G. Heminger said after the hearing that DeRosa has been hurt by the postings.
  “People are committing acts that are tortuous to my client,” he said. “Now it’s just a matter of finding out who they are.” The postings accusing DeRosa of corrupt business practices that began Oct. 19 and continued through Nov. 27.
  DeRosa’s suit names the unidentified defendants as Howard and Robin Doe.
  Rattanni is not a defen­dant in the



  Rattanni said he’ll provide the information to DeRosa’s legal team if the court orders it.
  “I’ll comply with a court order,” Rattani said. “It’s not for me to decide.” Rattanni has left the thread containing the questionable comments about DeRosa on the discussion board but he has locked it so that no additional comments can be posted.
  Rattanni has in the past removed threads that he’s deemed defamatory.
  He posted an image of his subpoena on the DeRosa thread and has urged indi­viduals who posted there to contact the ACLU.
  Rose said there is not a lot of case law addressing the issue of anonymous free speech rights.
  In her motion presented to the court, Rose argues that hosts of Internet discus­sion boards devoted to local politics “have an indepen­dent First Amendment inter­est in protecting the speech of people who contribute information to the site.
  “If posters’ speech is chilled by the fear of expo­sure of the speaker’s identity, the public value of the site is lessened and the site’s con­tribution to public discourse is negatively affected.” Following the hear­ing, Rose said the fact that Rattanni locked the thread “is proof he feels his speech is chilled” by the threat of the lawsuit.
  Rose argues in her motion that the court, in deciding whether the posters should be unmasked to the plaintiff, must determine whether the plaintiff meets a summary judgment standard requir­ing evidence that the alleged defamatory statements were false, defamatory and caused harm to the plaintiff sup­porting a monetary award.
  Judge Wettick remarked during the hearing that, for those seeking to prove defa­mation, “Basically, they’ve got a heavy burden.”

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