oldcomputer.jpgA federal judge in San Francisco has blocked a bid by a Pennsylvania company to learn the identity of an anonymous person who posted unflattering comments about the company on a Yahoo! Inc. message board.

U.S. District Judge Susan Illston said in a ruling issued Monday that the identity of the critic, who used the online name of “Stokklerk,” was protected by the constitutional right of free speech.

Illston wrote, “The First Amendment protects the right of individuals to speak anonymously.”

USA Technologies, based in Malvern, Pa., sells technology for electronic credit card payments.

It claimed in a lawsuit filed in federal court in Philadelphia that the anonymous critic defamed the company with comments such as allegations that its executive compensation program was “legalized highway robbery” and a “soft Ponzi” scheme.

Stokklerk also wrote that the company’s chief executive officer was “a known liar” because his predictions of company profitability were incorrect.

Because Yahoo! is based in Sunnyvale, the company filed a request for a subpoena to obtain Stokklerk’s identity from Yahoo! in federal court in San Francisco.

In Monday’s ruling, Illston quashed the subpoena.

She said the comments were protected free speech because they were either “rhetorical hyperbole” or expressions of opinion.

The anonymous critic was represented in the case by lawyers from the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Foundation attorney Matt Zimmerman said today, “The First Amendment ensures that vigorous debates about matters of public concern can continue unabated, a fact that the court correctly recognized.”

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