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A federal judge on Monday sided with environmental pranksters behind a media hoax targeting Koch Industries Inc., upholding First Amendment protections for anonymous political speech on the Internet.
U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball in Utah tossed out a lawsuit filed by Koch Industries stemming from a bogus website and fake news release issued in December that falsely announced that the Wichita-based company was changing its financial commitments on climate change to fund more environmentally friendly groups. Koch's lawsuit had sought monetary damages as well as the identities of the pranksters.
Kimball also issued an order prohibiting Koch -- one of the nation's largest privately held companies -- from using any identifying information it may have already obtained from an earlier subpoena on the company that had unwittingly hosted the fake website for a few hours before it was taken down.
"Before authorizing subpoenas seeking to strip speakers of their First Amendment right to anonymity, courts require plaintiffs to make a preliminary showing that their complaint has merit," the judge wrote.
The nonprofit Public Citizen Litigation Group, which represented the anonymous members of Youth for Climate Change, argued that Koch's lawsuit would have a chilling effect on anonymous Internet communications and basic First Amendment rights.
Washington, D.C.-based Public Citizen said Kimball's decision was an important precedent to prevent future lawsuits aimed at stifling political speech.
"This lawsuit was a well-financed attempt by Koch to bully its political opponents into submission. The court was right to dismiss this lawsuit, which was based on a harmless prank," Deepak Gupta, attorney for Public Citizen, said in a written statement.
Koch Industries has contended the lawsuit was not about freedom of speech and that it was not seeking in any way to silence its critics. The company said it filed the lawsuit because its computer systems and intellectual property were compromised and used without permission.
"We are disappointed by the judge's decision and continue to stand by our earlier statements about this case," Koch Industries said in a written statement Monday. "We are reviewing our options and have no further comment."
In his ruling, Kimball concluded the environmentalists' conduct was political speech protected by the First Amendment, not unprotected commercial speech.
"The press release addressed only Koch's views on political issues, it did not address Koch's commercial goods and services," the judge wrote in his decision. "At most, the press release related to how Koch spends its profits and with whom it does business."
He also rejected Koch's claims that the activists had violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, noting the defendants created a mock-up of Koch's website using information the company had made publicly available on the Internet -- without requiring any login, password or other individual grant of access.
Kimball also pointed out that none of the media outlets that received the news release believed it, noting the only media coverage of it referred to it as a hoax.