In the digital age, the internet not infrequently stretches the bounds of traditional jurisprudence and raises tricky new questions. An example from earlier this year is Vangheluwe v. GotNews, LLC, where a federal court in Michigan grappled with this question: How significant to personal jurisdiction is “doxing” a resident of the forum state? The Eastern District of Michigan’s shorthand answer is: It all depends on the dox.
What is Doxing?
Doxing (sometimes spelled “doxxing”) is the internet-spawned practice of disclosing or publicizing on the internet an individual’s private or identifying information, such as his or her identity, or personal or work address. The goal typically is to harass or retaliate against the “outed” person by exposing private or identifying information to an online audience.
Vangheluwe arose out of events at the now infamous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. During or shortly after that event, a Dodge Challenger driven by James Alex Fields, Jr. sped into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing one and injuring numerous others. Promptly thereafter, users of the online forum 4Chan located and posted public records showing that the vehicle was at some point owned by one Jerome Vangheluwe, a resident of Michigan. A reporter for the online outlet GotNews learned this information, located and reviewed social media pages for Jerome Vangheluwe’s son Joel, and proceeded to post an article titled “BREAKING: #Charlottesville Car Terrorist is Anti-Trump, Open Borders Druggie.”
Individuals also rushed to implicate (wrongly) the Vangheluwes on Twitter and elsewhere. Lita Coulthart-Villanueva tweeted “Killer confirmed. Jerome Vangheluwe,” followed by his home address in Michigan. Richard Weikart tweeted that “Joel Vangheluwe from Romeo, Michigan . . . was the attacker.” Paul Nehlen tweeted a link to the GotNews article (including its “car terrorist” headline).
The Vangheluwes – who did not own the Challenger and had nothing to do with the rally – were not amused, particularly after receiving “countless anonymous threats” and being warned by Michigan State Police to leave their home for their own safety. They brought defamation and related claims against two news entities and 20 individuals (including the three mentioned above) in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. Coulthart-Villanueva (a California resident), Weikhart (from Indiana) and Nehlen (from Wisconsin) all filed motions to dismiss, arguing that the court lacked personal jurisdiction over them.
Construing the Supreme Court’s decision in Calder v. Jones (a defamation case involving a magazine publication), as well as more recent circuit online defamation case law, the court concluded that merely posting a defamatory statement about the plaintiff online is insufficient to hale the poster into the plaintiff’s forum state — rather, “the poster’s conduct must have involved the plaintiff’s state in some additional way.”
Applying this test, the court determined that one of the tweeters could properly be subject to personal jurisdiction in Michigan. Coulthart-Villanueva’s tweet included the Vangheluwes’ physical address, making it “reasonable to infer that [her] tweet was intended to cause some action in Michigan or catch the eye of those most able to make contact with the Vangheluwes, i.e., Michiganders.” The fact that Coulthart-Villanueva’s tweet had no “likes,” was not retweeted, was deleted within two hours, and had a total of four comments (two of which pointed out that she had misidentified the driver) gave the court “pause,” but not enough to grant the motion to dismiss.
By contrast, the court held that the other two individuals were not properly subject to suit in Michigan. Nehlen, who had linked the GotNews article in his tweet, did not provide either of the Vangheluwe’s “current whereabouts with any specificity” (the article did identify Jerome as being from Michigan and Joel as having attended high school in Romeo, Michigan). Analyzing the article’s content, the court found that Nehlen’s tweet lacked “a Michigan focus” that would subject him to suit in that state. The court reached the same conclusion about Weikart’s tweet, which did identify Joel as being from Romeo, Michigan, finding that “nothing about the tweet suggests he was targeting a Michigan audience.”
Personal jurisdiction in internet defamation cases is an evolving area, particularly in view of the more restrictive approach to personal jurisdiction taken by the Supreme Court in recent decisions such as Walden v. Fiore. Vangheluwe (as well as the Seventh Circuit’s earlier decision in Tamburo v. Dworkin) shows that the old “effects test” of Calder v. Jones is far from dead, at least not in the realm of online defamation. The Vangheluwe court’s lengthy analysis of the doxing tweets also shows that personal jurisdiction issues in cases such as these will involve a close parsing of the poster/tweeter’s words, as well as the intended audience of the communication. For now, the bottom line appears to be this: The closer a tweet or post comes to encouraging behavior or action within the forum state, the more likely personal jurisdiction will be found.