The U.S. Court of Appeals has recently denied Glassdoor Inc’s motion to quash a grand jury subpoena requiring the company to reveal identifying information about anonymous users who wrote reviews about a separate company.
Glassdoor argued that complying with the subpoena would violate anonymous speech rights and violate privacy. The Court of Appeals was like, yeah whatevs, this is about a federal case so give up those names.
The subpoena is in relation to an ongoing investigation by an Arizona Federal Grand Jury. Allegedly, a government contractor that administers two Department of Veteran’s Affairs programs committed wire fraud and misused government funds. As of March 2017, 125 reviews have been posted on Glassdoor by current and former employees of the contractor.
On March 6, 2017, Glassdoor was served with a subpoena ordering the company to provide identifying information about the reviewers, including emails, IP addresses, and billing information.
Glassdoor argued this request violated their user’s First Amendment rights, and the government agreed to limit the scope of its request to eight crucial reviews.
The government noted this information would aid the investigation, enabling them to contact the reviewers as third party witnesses to business practices related to the case. However, Glassdoor was still not cool with this, and filed a motion to suppress the subpoena.
The district court denied the motion, upholding their stance that since the investigation was not being conducted in bad faith, the company must respond under pain of contempt. Basically, Glassdoor is going to get charged $5000 a day until they comply.
Most of the argument stems from Supreme Court Case Branzburg v. Hayes, which stipulates that reporters generally cannot refuse to testify in a criminal grand jury. Branzburg v. Hayes combined three separate cases regarding journalists reporting illicit activity, but protecting their sources from identification.
Glassdoor argues since they are not a news organization, this case should not apply to their users. The court shot back that although Glassdoor isn’t technically in the news business, just like the reporters in Branzburg, the company publishes information from sources it agrees not to identify.
While Glassdoor’s commitment to protecting its users is noble, since review posters are notified before each posting their info may be shared, Glassdoor may not have the same grounds of arguing promised anonymity as the reporters in the Branzburg case. Plus, since the investigation is in good faith, the government contends that the company has no reason for resistance.
Glassdoor insists the court instead focus on the results of Bursey v. United States, a case regarding the First Amendment rights of groups considered subversive by the government. Bursey requires government investigations to satisfy a three-part “compelling interest” test to proceed.
The Court of Appeals argues that since Glassdoor users aren’t really a special community group, the precedent set in Branzburg about investigations in good faith more accurately applies to the current case.
Since the government is not investigating Glassdoor itself, but rather attempting to further the grand jury case with information from users, Glassdoor’s motion to quash the subpoena was denied.
The eight users whose reviews were flagged will likely have to testify in the case, and Glassdoor cannot further refuse to identify the reviewers.