Blogger turns attorney, defeats trial lawyer's subpoena

John O'Brien Apr. 23, 2008, 5:00pm


PETERBOROUGH, N.H. (Legal Newsline) - When blogger and admitted information-hoarder Kathleen Seidel received a subpoena asking for nearly every piece of data associated with her website, she had two choices -- get mad or get an attorney.

Trial lawyer Clifford Shoemaker of Virginia requested in March, among other things, "documents pertaining to the setup, financing, running, research and maintaining" of her site, which frequently links to articles and features blogs pertaining to Shoemaker's main litigation area.

Not willing to dish out the dollars for defense, Seidel filed her own motion to quash the subpoena. It was granted Monday.

"I wrote that motion on a days-long surge of adrenaline and outrage," Seidel said. "I was served the subpoena on a Wednesday afternoon and began doing my homework Thursday morning. I filed the response on Monday afternoon."

Shoemaker specializes in litigation against vaccine makers, claiming the mercury in their products has led to autism. Others argue that autism's symptoms become prominent around the same time a child receives his or her first vaccinations, making the connection a coincidence.

On March 24, Seidel posted an entry called "The Commerce in Causation," chronicling some of Shoemaker's history with such lawsuits. It showed the amount he was paid for each successful and unsuccessful suit - more than a half-million dollars in the 22 cases exhibited.

Seidel logged on the Internet to find the proper way to complete the filing. She planned to shield herself with a journalist's right to protect his or her sources, finding the case of Claus von Bulow of particular help.

Von Bulow was accused of attempting to murder his wife in 1980 by giving her a deadly amount of insulin, but escaped the charge. Years later, his girlfriend Andrea Reynolds began compiling notes on his life.

When his late wife's family initiated a civil suit against him and subpoenaed Reynolds' records, she unsuccessfully argued that she planned to use the information for a book and was therefore a journalist.

"There's some really great prose in there about how you don't have to be affiliated with a traditional news organization to be a reporter," Seidel said. "That's especially relevant today, with the Internet and all the blogs. All you have to do is push a button, and it's up there on a blog."

Seidel started her site in 2004, then began blogging in Jan. 2005. She had previously been content to just categorize and link to the works of others, as she holds a Master's degree in Library Science from Columbia University.

Considering all that work has led to more than 300 different topics being featured on her site, the subpoena (from the case Sykes v. Bayer Corp. in Virginia federal court) presented a tall task. She calls her site "half-library, half-soapbox."

"(Shoemaker) wanted the documentary record, every thought I'd had for the past four years, almost anything having to do with my website," Seidel said.

Public Citizen Litigation Group offered near-free defense for Seidel, who would have only had to pay for costs incurred and not fees. She never got a chance to take it up on its offer before filing her own response.

The subpoena made 10 separate requests, and was quashed by Magistrate Judge James Muirhead. Muirhead ordered Shoemaker to show cause why he should not be sanctioned for filing a "burdensome" subpoena.

"Hallelujah! That is good news," Seidel said. "My privacy was preserved."

From librarian to blogger to attorney to reporter, Seidel said she has mixed feelings about the experience.

"It wasn't fun," she said. "Writing that motion was not fun, but it was satisfying to speak my peace."

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