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Gmail User’s Email Criticizing Sandals Resort Protected by First Amendment

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Gmail logo by Kinologik on Flickr

Gmail logo by Kinologik on Flickr

A New York appellate court will not force Google to release information about a user who sent an email critical of Sandals Resorts International Ltd.

The user in question had sent an email to several people accusing Sandals in Jamaica of accepting state subsidies financed by Jamaicans but then hiring Jamaicans for only the lowest-paying of jobs while bringing on foreign employees for the higher-paying positions. The email also included links to websites and other online resources to bolster its argument and rhetorical questions such as, “WHY ARE POVERTY-STRICKEN JAMAICAN TAXPAYERS SUBSIDIZING THE BILLION DOLLAR TOURIST INDUSTRY….”

The resort was attempting to build a case of libel against the emailer under the argument that the statements made against it were false and defamatory and also implied the company was racist; the company argued that an accusation of racism was per se actionable as libel under New York law.

Sandals had petitioned the court to compel Google to release a large amount of information regarding the user who had sent the message via a Gmail account, “including but not limited to all email, instant messages, text messages, buddy lists, address books, contact lists, account histories, account settings, profiles, mail boxes, folder structure, detailed billing, user activity records (log on and log off times), user identification records, phone number access records, ISP access records, and all information provided by the user at the time the account was created.”

In a unanimous panel decision, however, the New York Appellate Division, First Department, affirmed the lower court’s decision and found that the email’s contents were opinion and thus protected by the First Amendment. Moreover, the court rejected Sandals’ racism claim, finding that the email was instead an “exercise in rhetoric, seeking to raise questions in the mind of the reader regarding the role of Jamaican nationals in the Sandals resorts located in Jamaica.”

In reaching its decision, the panel quoted a law review article, which noted that emails “are often the repository of a wide range of casual, emotive, and imprecise speech,’ and that the online recipients of [offensive] statements do not necessarily attribute the same level of credence to the statements [that] they would accord to statements made in other contexts.’” The court also noted that nothing in the resort’s petition “identifies specific assertions of fact as false.”

Justice David B. Saxe, who authored the opinion, warned against businesses that would attempt to use the power of the court “via court orders to silence their online critics [which] threatens to stifle the free exchange of ideas.”

What do you think of this decision? Should speech such as this be protected by the First Amendment?

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June 2nd, 2011 at 7:11 am