Federal Court Upholds Protest on the Web

News Release: 
Tuesday, June 30, 1998

A federal court in Seattle has held that people have the same right to protest in cyberspace as they do on sidewalks. U.S. District Court Judge William Dwyer ruled that people cannot be barred from putting offensive material on the Internet unless a court has found it defamatory after trial.

"This ruling sets a valuable precedent for extending free speech rights in cyberspace. It recognizes that protest on a Web site is a high-tech version of handing out leaflets and carrying picket signs," said ACLU of Washington staff attorney Aaron Caplan.

William Sheehan of Mill Creek had posted sharply worded criticisms of some credit reporting agencies and their practices on his home page on the World Wide Web. Included were derogatory statements about Experian Information Solutions employees, whom he called "liars, cheats, and scumbags." Also included were the employees' home addresses and phone numbers, and maps locating their homes. The company responded by seeking a preliminary injunction to require Sheehan to remove the information.

At the invitation of Judge Dwyer, the ACLU of Washington submitted an amicus brief in the case defending Sheehan's free speech rights. The ACLU-WA contended that Sheehan should not be prevented from communicating information which is publicly available and presents no incitement to imminent harmful action.

Judge Dwyer agreed with the ACLU that since Sheehan's speech is protected by the First Amendment, a court order requiring him to remove it from the Internet is impermissible prior restraint. In cancelling a previously issued temporary restraining order and denying the motion for preliminary injunction, Judge Dwyer wrote, "The First Amendment is renowned for protecting the speech we deplore as thoroughly as the speech we admire … (Sheehan's) verbal pyrotechnics have surely been offensive, but they have had a theme (whether false or overblown does not matter) that he and others are victims of credit-reporting agencies. Offensive speech - even if it 'stirs people to anger' - is ordinarily protected."