Lawyers representing the environmentalists behind a media hoax targeting Koch Industries Inc. have asked a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit by the Wichita-based company seeking the pranksters' identities.
The Washington-based Public Citizen Litigation Group said the lawsuit would have a chilling effect on anonymous Internet communications and basic First Amendment rights. In a request filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Utah, the group asked a judge to quash subpoenas obtained by Koch Industries and issue a protective order.
The nonprofit advocacy group contends it represents the anonymous members of Youth for Climate Truth.
The dust-up stems from a bogus website and fake news release issued last month that falsely announced the company was changing its financial commitments on climate change to fund more environmentally friendly groups. The hoax included a website with a similar Web address and homepage of Koch Industries' official site. The companies that registered and hosted the website are in Utah.
"What Koch needs to understand is people have a First Amendment right to criticize people on the Internet — and that includes powerful corporations and government," Deepak Gupta, the attorney for Public Citizen, said in a telephone interview. "You can't simply hire a lawyer and file a lawsuit to try to unmask your political critics, because we have a First Amendment in this country. It allows you to speak out and it allows you to speak out anonymously."
Koch Industries has steadfastly contended that the issue isn't about free speech, but about identity theft, theft of intellectual property and impersonation.
"This is not a lawsuit about freedom of speech. We believe in a vigorous political debate. We are not seeking in any way to silence our critics," the company said in a statement Thursday. "This lawsuit was filed because the integrity of our computer systems and our valuable intellectual property was compromised and used without permission, in violation of . . . federal law."
Koch Industries, one of the nation's largest privately held companies, has been targeted by environmental groups for its financial support of groups that question climate science.
Last year, Greenpeace issued a scathing report contending that Koch Industries was "secretly funding the climate denial machine" and detailed its financial contributions to conservative groups. Koch responded at the time that the Greenpeace report distorted its environmental record.
"The reality is these kinds of lawsuits are used to try to intimidate and unmask critics," Gupta said. "That is why we have the First Amendment, so that the legal process is not used for that kind of purpose."
Koch Industries' lawsuit accuses the unknown defendants of trademark infringement, violations of the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act, unfair competition, computer fraud and abuse, among other allegations.
In its court filing, Public Citizen argued that the company's claims fail because the defendants used its trademark solely to make a political statement, not to sell any goods or services in competition with Koch Industries. It also argued that the company's other claims of cybersquatting cannot stand because the fake website had no commercial purpose and was established solely to criticize Koch Industries and bring attention to the company's stance on climate change.
The Utah firms that registered and hosted the fake website told the Associated Press earlier this month that they had already complied with the information sought in the subpoenas.
Gupta said that issue is still relevant and that he is seeking a protective order that would keep Koch Industries' lawyers from using that information until the judge rules on the privilege claims brought up by Public Citizen.