I've previously praised Cathy Gellis, who helped provide pro bono representation to an anonymous satirical blogger menaced by Charles Carreon, and who has guest-blogged here about the Prenda Law debacle.
Time for more kudos.
Last week Cathy — again offering her valuable services pro bono — won a hard-fought free speech battle and succeeded in quashing a subpoena that sought to unmask an anonymous blogger. The blog — the St. Lucia Free Press — wrote critically about the development of a local resort and made accusations of misconduct. One executive — Oliver Gobat — asserted that the St. Lucia Free Press coverage was factually mistaken and defamatory to him. Did he sue in St. Lucia? He did not. You go to St. Lucia to vacation. To find a friendly forum for a defamation claim, you go to the United Kingdom, that haven for libel tourism and abusive defamation laws.
Mr. Gobat wanted to uncover the identity of the person running St. Lucia Free Press. The ISP is in Northern California. So Mr. Gobat sought and obtained from a court in the United Kingdom a discovery order in a rather abbreviated proceeding, then used that foreign court order to purport to subpoena the ISP here in California to discover the blogger's identity.
Cathy Gellis filed a petition and supporting papers seeking to quash the subpoena, attacking (amongst other things) the adequacy of the UK process, the validity of the UK court order in America, and the insufficiently established proposition that the St. Lucia Free Press comments were defamation. Mr. Gobat's lawyers' response was a model of blustering entitled outrage, demanding sanctions against Cathy and excoriating her. How dare she!
She dared, and she won. After Cathy's reply, and a lengthy hearing at which the judge (to quote Cathy) "took the better part of the hour expounding on all the due process problems requiring him to quash the subpoena," the judge quashed the subpoena. Far from granting Mr. Gobat's attorneys' demand for sanctions, the judge granted fees and costs to Cathy.
This is a big win, and an important one. The St. Lucia Free Press may yet have to address, in court, whether its words about Mr. Gobat were false and defamatory. There's nothing wrong with that. But the sequence of events here was very troubling. The United States has emerging legal norms protecting anonymous bloggers and requiring plaintiffs to demonstrate their case has merit before unmasking them. But what happens if a litigant can evade those norms by running to a notorious libel-tourism haven like the United Kingdom — with its increasingly problematical approach to speech and its distinctly pro-plaintiff libel laws — and get a discovery order that they can then enforce in the United States via subpoena? There must be a process to challenge foreign discovery orders so that U.S. courts do not become mere conduits for foreign censorship. Cathy succeeded in using one such process.
As I've said before, our legal system has its good points, but it is also deeply flawed. It permits censorious abuse without imposing adequate consequences on the abuser. It can be ruinously expensive to be a defendant whether or not a claim has merit. Whatever theoretical defenses our laws may provide, only one thing is practically sufficient to defend freedom of expression: the continued willingness of lawyers like Cathy Gellis to step up and offer pro bono services to people who can't afford to defend themselves. She has my thanks and admiration, and I hope she has yours. Kindly spread the word.
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