Beaver County Treasurer Connie Javens has abandoned her attempts at learning the true identities of six anonymous commenters on BeaverCountian.com. Nearly three years after she originally filed her lawsuit alleging defamation, Javens notified a judge late last month she was officially discontinuing the litigation.
Attorneys are calling the case an important victory for the public and the press.
Javens and her daughter, Renee Javens Zuk, filed a defamation lawsuit in May 2016 against BeaverCountian.com commenters aka John Q Taxpayer, thebigdigger, THE EXECUTIONER, Slicer, Courthouseconvicts and ConnieintheSlammer.
As part of their lawsuit, Javens and Zuk issued a subpoena against BeaverCountian.com for identifying information about the anonymous individuals.
Although this publication was not a named defendant in the lawsuit, BeaverCountian.com’s John Paul refused to comply with the subpoena and vowed to protect the commenters’ anonymity. John Paul subsequently invoked the Pennsylvania Journalist Shield Law — a law that protects a reporter who gathers news from being “required to disclose the source of any information procured or obtained by such person, in any legal proceeding, trial or investigation before any government unit.”
In March 2017, Senior Erie County Judge John Bozza issued a ruling agreeing with BeaverCountian.com’s position that John Paul could stand behind the Shield Law to protect the commenters. According to BeaverCountian.com’s attorneys, it marked the first time in Pennsylvania that a new media reporter had invoked the Shield Law during litigation, and the first time any reporter had used the Shield to protect the identities of anonymous commenters on a news website.
Javens and Zuk took no further actions in their ongoing litigation following Bozza’s ruling as they were unable to identify the commenters.
Seeing no activity in the case for an extended period of time, Beaver County Common Pleas Judge James Ross issued an order on Feb. 7 directing the two women to appear in his courtroom on March 19 to “show cause why the case should continue.”
An attorney representing Javens and Zuk subsequently filed a notice with the court on Feb. 21 formally discontinuing the litigation.
Brian Collins, a Philadelphia based attorney with the law firm of Offit Kurman, represented BeaverCountian.com in the case. Collins said actions taken by BeaverCountian.com in protecting the commenters’ anonymity helped to solidify important protections for reporters throughout Pennsylvania and beyond.
“This ruling represented an expansion on the interpretation of the Shield Law,” said attorney Collins. “The Shield Law now covers new media to the same extent it covers old media. The Shield Law also now protects all journalists who want to follow up with anonymous commenters to develop stories, which can certainly help to encourage the free flow of information.”
The defense mounted against Javens upheld fundamental rights of the general public as well, according to Beaver attorney Gerald Benyo, who represented “John Q Taxpayer” in the litigation.
“This was an important case in Beaver County as the Court upheld a commenter’s Constitutional Right to anonymous freedom of speech,” said Benyo.
“There are too many documented incidents in Beaver County where an individual who does the right thing and reports bumfuckery to authorities is punished for their actions once they are identified. … Any citizen has the right to criticize elected officials.”
BeaverCountian.com’s Complete Coverage Of Treasurer Connie Javens’ Unsuccessful Attempt At Unmasking Anonymous Commenters:
About BeaverCountian.com’s Legal Representation In The Case:
Founded in the 1980’s in Baltimore, Offit Kurman is now one of the fastest-growing full-service law firms in the region. The group has a keen understanding of the importance of the intersection of law and technology, having recently expanded their attorneys with technology focused practices including intellectual property, data and cybersecurity, and privacy issues. With 120 attorneys on staff, the firm offers a comprehensive range of services in virtually every legal category. Offit Kurman’s twelve offices serve individual and corporate clients in the Philadelphia, Washington DC, Baltimore, and New York City metropolitan areas, and markets including Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and Northern Virginia.
Legal representation for the Beaver Countian was arranged by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the world’s leading digital civil rights organization. The EFF was founded in 1990 to ensure that rights and freedoms are enhanced and protected as our use of technology grows. The international nonprofit organization champions causes of user privacy, free expression, and innovation through impact litigation, policy analysis, grassroots activism, and technology development. The EFF has lead litigation against the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance program in conjunction with efforts by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). A staff member for the organization served as the “digital bodyguard” for Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Glenn Greenwald, helping to secure source material provided to the reporter by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.