The Video Professor Loses a Round In His Battle Against Critics

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As documented in this September blog, John Scherer and his Colorado company, Video Professor, play hardball when it comes to criticism -- hence the legal action it took against anonymous online gripes about the firm, which aggressively markets computer-training products via ubiquitous commercials and infomercials that screen nationwide.

This time around, though, it appears that the Prof, a 2006 Westword profile subject, may have overreached. According to the press release below from Public Citizen, a Washington D.C.-based consumer advocacy organization, the firm "has dropped its fight to identify customers who criticized the company on two consumer Web sites, according to a motion filed in federal court."

Here's the scoop:

'Video Professor' Backs Off Attempt to Unmask Internet Critics

First Amendment Protects Web Site Operator Represented by Public Citizen

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Video Professor, a Colorado firm that uses infomercials to hawk computer-training lessons, has dropped its fight to identify customers who criticized the company on two consumer Web sites, according to a motion filed in federal court.

Video Professor dropped its subpoena against InfomercialScams.com after Public Citizen objected in a letter to the company's attorney. Among several shortcomings, the Video Professor's suit did not meet the legal threshold necessary to force the Web site to identify anonymous critics, Public Citizen attorney Paul Alan Levy wrote in September.

The company also withdrew a similar subpoena against RipoffReport.com, which is not represented by Public Citizen. The withdrawals were part of a motion filed Monday in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado. Levy hailed the company's decision as a win, not only for Leonard Fitness, which operates the InfomercialScams.com Web site, but as a victory for free speech on the Internet.

"When you confront bullies, they often don't have the stomach to take on fights they're clearly not going to win." Levy said. "The First Amendment is a powerful weapon when used against companies that would try to use the courts to muzzle their critics."

The Video Professor offers CDs and online lessons on a wide range of computer programs and skills. Company founder John Scherer claims that 8 million people have purchased his products since he started selling instructional videos 20 years ago.

Interestingly, Scherer's own Web site warns consumers to check out companies they don't know by using Internet search engines to find customer reviews. Along with withdrawing its subpoena against InfomercialScams.com, Video Professor earlier dropped a similar subpoena against InfomercialRatings.com, another Leonard Fitness site.

Although Video Professor has dropped some subpoenas in the case, it continues to seek the identities of people who it claims defamed thecompany on the Wikipedia Web site. Wikipedia apparently provided Video Professor with the IP addresses of people who posted on its site. It is not clear whether Wikipedia gave any notice to the people whose information was released.

The Video Professor has subpoenaed Comcast Cable for information that would reveal one of the Wikipedia posters.

Although Public Citizen does not represent Wikipedia or Comcast, Levy said the same arguments he used in defending Leonard Fitness apply.

State and federal courts throughout the country recognize the right to speak anonymously on the Internet, said Levy, who runs the Internet Free Speech program at Public Citizen. To identify anonymous critics, the Video Professor would have to show a likelihood of success on the merits of the case, which it has not, he said.

To view documents related to the case go to: http://www.citizen.org/litigation/forms/cases/CaseDetails.cfm?cID=432

Back to class, Professor. -- Michael Roberts


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