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Judge Drops Internet Defamation Suit

April 4, 2004

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ In a case defense attorneys called the first to test the limits of Internet free speech, a judge asked a court to drop her defamation lawsuit against someone who criticized her in an Internet chat room.

Judge Joan Orie Melvin no longer wants to know the identity of a critic who denounced her on the Internet in 1999, court documents filed in the past week show.

No reason was given for the decision. Melvin’s attorney, Jack Orie, did not immediately return a call to his office Saturday.

Melvin sued after an anonymous person using the screen name ``Grant Street 99″ claimed in a chat room that Melvin had lobbied then-Gov. Tom Ridge to appoint a friend to a vacant county judgeship.

Political activity by judges is prohibited in Pennsylvania and Melvin, who denied the claim, sued. The case never made it to trial.

The American Civil Liberties Union defended the Internet critic, saying the case would be the first in the country to test the right to remain anonymous in an Internet forum.

A judge ruled in Melvin’s favor in 2000, saying her attorney would have to know the identities of the people criticizing Melvin before trying to prove they did so falsely and maliciously.

The ACLU appealed twice before the state Supreme Court sent the case back to a lower court to decide whether a public official must first prove financial harm before the identity of his or her accuser is revealed.

It was unclear whether the court will still rule on that issue.

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