Legal Protections for Anonymous Speech in Michigan

Note: This page covers information specific to Michigan. For general information concerning legal protections for anonymous speech see the Legal Protections for Anonymous Speech section of this guide.

In Michigan, there is little case law on the First Amendment right to anonymous/pseudonymous speech, so the issue of what test or standard to apply when a plaintiff seeks to uncover the identity of an anonymous Internet speaker is not entirely clear. The Michigan Court of Appeals, in Thomas M. Cooley Law School v. Doe et al., No. 307426 (Mich. Ct. App. Apr. 4, 2013), declined to adopt any special test providing additional First Amendment protection for anonymous speakers. Instead, it held that Michigan’s discovery rules adequately protect First Amendment interests. The Michigan Supreme Court has yet to rule on this issue.

Thomas M. Cooley Law School v. Doe et al., No. 307426 (Mich. Ct. App. Apr. 4, 2013)

In Cooley, a former Cooley Law School student (“Doe 1”, posting pseudonymously as Rockstar05) posted allegedly defamatory statements about the law school on his website, “Thomas M. Cooley Law School Scam.” After filing a complaint against Doe 1 in a Michigan state trial court (Ingham County), the law school petitioned the San Francisco County Superior Court for a subpoena to obtain Doe 1’s identity from California-based Weebly, host of Doe 1’s website. The subpoena was issued, and Doe 1 filed a motion to quash the subpoena in . Doe 1’s motion was denied by the Michigan trial court, which adopted the a form of the First Amendment balancing test in Dendrite International v. Doe, 775 A.2d 756 (N.J. App. Div. 2001). Doe 1 appealed this order.

On appeal, the Court rejected the trial court’s application of a traditional First Amendment balancing test with respect to anonymous speech online, declining to adopt a test from either Dendrite International v. Doe, 775 A.2d 756 (N.J. App. Div. 2001) or Doe v. Cahill, 884 A.2d 451 (Del. 2005). The Court of Appeals held that Michigan’s procedural rules already protected the anonymous speaker’s first amendment interests: “We conclude that Michigan procedures for a protective order [under Michigan Court Rule 2.302], when combined with Michigan procedures for summary disposition [under Michigan Court Rule 2.116(C)(8)], adequately protect a defendant's First Amendment interests in anonymity.” Under this standard, the Court held that the trial court need have only considered whether good cause existed to prevent enforcement of the subpoena and to what extent to grant relief. The Court of Appeals therefore reversed the trial court’s application of out-of-state law, and sent the case back to the trial court for a determination as to whether Doe 1 was entitled to have the subpoena quashed under Michigan’s own rules of procedure.


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