Public official cannot conduct discovery to identify allegedly libelous speaker without giving notice and demonstrating prima facie case
Gus Ghanam is the deputy superintendent of public works for the City of Warren. He didn't like the jokes made about him on a local website, so he filed a "John Doe" lawsuit against the perpetrators and then attempted to subpoena the organizer of the website to identify the anonymous critics. The trial judge ruled that Ghanam could not force disclosure of the names without establishing at least an arguable claim of defamation. Ghanam appealed.
The higher court upheld the lower court's decision. It noted that in the case of public comment about public officials, the Court must strike a careful balance between broad and liberal discovery in litigation, and the need to protect the free speech rights of persons who anonymously comment about public figures. Looking at the prior case law and the particular comments at issue, the Court held that a good faith attempt to provide notice to the anonymous commenters must be made before engaging in discovery. Further, since the allegedly defamatory comments were more in the nature of sarcasm than proveable statements of truth or falsehood, Ghanam had not alleged a valid claim of defamation. As a result, he could not engage in discovery to identify the persons involved, since the only potential outcome of identifying these people would be non-legal retaliation or harassment.