ACLU: Surgeon should not be able to unmask critics

Online critics have a free speech right to anonymously comment on the work of a Florida plastic surgeon, according to a legal motion filed today in Henrico County Circuit Court.

Filed by Public Citizen and the ACLU of Virginia, the motion claims that a subpoena to compel internet provider Comcast to release the name of an online commenter should be quashed.

The controversy arose last year when dissatisfied patients of Dr. Armand Soto posted on www.RateMDs.com that the plastic surgeon did not live up to their expectations. One patient complained that he felt his liposuction procedure resulted in larger love handles.

Claiming that the online comments constituted defamation and that the commenters had conspired against him, Soto last December filed a lawsuit in Henrico County against ten anonymous critics, alleging that “some defendants may be located within the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

The motion filed today by Public Citizen and the ACLU on behalf of one of the commenters says the First Amendment protects the commenters’ right to assert their opinions and that the suit improperly seeks to force individuals to litigate in a state that has no connection to them or the subject of the suit.

Soto’s lawyer, Domingo Rivera, previously filed at least one nearly identical suit. In  Rajagopal v. Does, Rivera sued in the same court on behalf of a California doctor unhappy about comments made about her practice stemming from a San Francisco newspaper article.

Public Citizen and the ACLU represented the anonymous speaker in Rajagopal. After a motion to quash was filed, Rivera voluntarily dismissed that case.

“Dr. Soto and Mr. Rivera have abused the Virginia judicial system by bringing a meritless suit with absolutely no ties to the forum state,” said Greg Beck, a Public Citizen attorney representing the commenter. “Based on the nature of the allegations and Rivera’s track record, one could only assume that the suit was filed solely to chill the patients’ speech. Soto is trying to coerce his patients to remove their postings.”

Added David Muraskin, another Public Citizen attorney representing the critic, “The court should not allow itself to become the go-to jurisdiction for physicians from across the country who are unhappy about online criticism. The meritless claims and the filing of the suit in Virginia warrants an award of sanctions against the plaintiff and his counsel in this case.”

“The criticism in question is entirely opinion – not fact – which is protected by the First Amendment,” said Rebecca Glenberg of the ACLU of Virginia, also an attorney on the case.

“The speech at issue addresses public concern regarding the performance of a physician,” added Glenberg, “and thus goes to the heart of the speech protected by the First Amendment. If people were allowed to sue over comments they don’t like, without the legal checks in place, it would have a chilling effect on free speech.”



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