A civil-rights foundation is asking a federal court to protect the online anonymity of a critic of a religious group after the group issued a subpoena demanding the critic’s identity.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a motion to quash in U.S. District Court in California regarding the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society’s subpoena to Reddit, the online discussion forum.
Reddit is facing the legal demand because a contributor to a discussion, identified only as “darkspilver,” allegedly posted online some of the Watchtower’s copyright materials.
EFF confirmed it is representing the commenter in the “abusive” copyright claim, contending the documents are “barely copyrightable” and the postings were fair use of the material.
The commenter, EFF explained, is a lifelong member of the Jehovah’s Witness community.
“Using the handle ‘darkspilver,’ Doe has chosen to share comments and concerns via one of Reddit’s online discussion groups. Darkspilver’s posts included a copy of an advertisement asking for donations that appeared on the back of a Watchtower magazine, as well as a chart Doe edited and reformatted to show the kinds of data that the Jehovah’s Witness organization collects and processes,” EFF said.
The commenter chose Reddit to share concerns “precisely because Reddit allows users to speak anonymously,” EFF said.
“Darkspilver has seen Jehovah’s Witness community members who raise questions be excommunicated or ‘disfellowshipped,’ where family and friends remaining in the community cut off normal social interactions.”
EFF Legal Director Corynne McSherry said courts “routinely quash subpoenas like this one if they don’t pass constitutional scrutiny, and they should do so here.”
“Darkspilver has a right to share their thoughts and feelings online without worrying that a baseless copyright claim could change their relationships to their closest friends and family,” she said.
The EFF motion to the court contends the subpoena, “on its face, appears to be nothing more than a transparent attempt by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (‘Watchtower’) to use the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (‘DCMA’) to unmask an anonymous speaker.”
“The underlying copyright claims concern two screenshots – of an advertisement and a chart – that Doe posted to an online forum where former (and questioning) Jehovah’s Witnesses can communicate pseudonymously. Both postings were self-evidence fair uses. In the unlikely event that Watchtower actually attempted to sue Doe, the complaint would never survive a motion to dismiss,” EFF said.
The commenter has concerns about the religious group, but his “lifelong experience with that community makes Doe afraid to question or doubt religious doctrine or administration in public,” EFF said.
That’s because those with dissenting points of view “are strongly discouraged … and those who express them are likely to be labeled ‘apostates.'”
In the Jehovah’s Witness community, that often means being cut off from family and friends, the motion explains.
Already the commenter has stopped posting on Reddit and has deleted many posts that are unrelated.
“The First Amendment protects anonymous speech precisely to prevent these kinds of harms,” EFF said. “Chilling Doe’s speech deprives U.S. audiences on Reddit as well as the U.S. public as a whole of truthful information, including about potential abuses and dissenting points of view.”
“Watchtower … should be required to respect U.S. free speech standards,” said the motion.
“Ironically enough, the right to anonymous speech is rooted, in part, in Supreme Court precedents involving door-to-door pamphleteering by Jehovah’s Witnesses,” the filing said.
That ruling said a local requirement that door-to-door advocates display permits with their real names violated the First Amendment.
“Any harm to Watchtower is minimal at best, because its copyright claims are meritless,” the motion said. “By contract, the harm to Doe caused by disclosure would be irreparable.”