Can you be sued for publishing public records on your website? The obvious answer might seem like “no.” But in a rapidly changing landscape in which many online businesses rely on public records for some of the services they provide to visitors and customers, it can still become an issue.
Consider the instance of frivolous lawsuits filed by author and journalist Kenneth Eng against websites like Techdirt and a site called PACERMonitor, which monitors and publishes public court findings.
In the suits, Eng claimed that his personal information, including name and address, are private and cannot be published or shared online, even though they were part of his own public court filings. TechDirt and PACERMonitor were only making available public documentation from Eng’s own lawsuits against another author when they were sued the first time. These lawsuits were quickly dismissed by Judge Eric N. Vitaliano of U.S. District Court in New York.
Eng sued TechDirt again for releasing “personal information” in his public suits against both websites and these were again dismissed.
It seems unlikely the latest suit filed again as a result of the ongoing coverage, will be any more successful. If it were actually illegal or a violation of privacy to publish public documents or information, any local newspaper or publication that prints police reports, news from government meetings or trial coverage would likely be sued constantly.
But, as Techdirt Publisher Mick Masnick pointed out in a note on the website, even frivolous suits can have damaging effects:
“No matter how confident you are in prevailing in a lawsuit, getting sued is still both a waste of resources and a massive distraction. Thus, we’re quite pleased with Judge Vitaliano’s handling of the case in this manner.”
So could online publishers face frivolous lawsuits when using public information in the future? The Techdirt lawsuit and others like it haven’t made it far. But any lawsuit at all can be too much for many small businesses.
For now, all businesses can really do is be aware of the possibility and try to avoid publishing documents or information that might lead to frivolous lawsuits, if they don’t have the resources to deal with them. Fortunately, courts have a low tolerance for the kind of lawsuits filed by people like Eng. The key is to know the law as it applies to use of public documents.
Make sure you abide by the law so that any action filed against you will have no real merit and can be dismissed quickly.
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