Last month the California Court of Appeal addressed whether Avongard Products U.S.A. Ltd., doing business as Hydraulx, a preeminent film industry visual special effects provider, made a prima facie showing that certain anonymous e-mails are provably false and defamatory statements of fact that caused Hydraulx to suffer actual damage. Hydraulx sued a number of anonymous defendants, including Doe 2, based on e-mails sent to an executive at Sony and another motion picture producer seeking to “whistle-blow” on Hydraulx regarding their ownership and alleged “bad business practices,” among other things. After Doe 2 filed a motion to strike the complaint pursuant to California’s anti-SLAPP statute, California Code of Civil Procedure § 425.16, the trial court granted Hydraulx’s request to conduct special discovery to reveal Doe 2’s identity. The Court of Appeal issued a writ of mandate ordering the trial court to vacate its discovery order and issue a new order denying Hydraulx’s special discovery motion. The case is Doe 2 v. Superior Court (Avongard Prods.), B269087.
In a decision that has been certified for publication, the California Court of Appeal held that the statements were non-actionable statements of opinion that did not assert or imply provably false statements of fact that, in context, are susceptible of a defamatory meaning. In particular, the court found that the term “whistle-blow” does not necessarily imply civil or criminal liability in this particular context because it was used “hyperbolically.” The court reiterated that, although the right to speak anonymously has always been an aspect of freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment, no speaker has a First Amendment right to defame others.
This decision demonstrates that courts will continue to place the burden on the plaintiff to prove some factual and legal basis for their defamation claim before a court will compel disclosure of identifying information about an anonymous speaker.