The Center for Individual Rights has taken up the legal defense of a volunteer editor who is facing a frivolous $180 million defamation suit regarding entries on the Wikipedia page of Texas tax advisor and political figure, John Anthony Castro. The volunteer, who writes for Wikimedia under the username “Chetsford,” risks losing his anonymity and being dragged into a costly and vexatious lawsuit. CIR is fighting to vindicate Chetsford’s right to engage in anonymous speech concerning public figures and matters of pubic concern, which has been a core First Amendment right from America’s founding and is of increasing importance today.
Castro is running is running for President of the United States in the 2024 election. He has unsuccessfully run for federal office in Texas twice before, securing less than 6% of his fellow Texans’ votes in both of his failed election bids. In January 2023, Castro received significant media coverage when he filed a lawsuit seeking to declare Donald Trump ineligible to be president.
On June 16, 2023, Castro filed a defamation lawsuit in federal court in Texas, alleging that Chetsford and others included erroneous information on his Wikipedia page, for example, that Castro was “a ‘sleazy’ tax attorney.” The actual entry noted that a tax professor in Texas had given Castro an award for emulating a TV character on “Cheers,” Norm Peterson, an accountant who gave crazy tax advice. Even if the Wikipedia page had directly labeled Castro as sleazy, that would be a classic statement of opinion, not fact, and opinion is not defamatory as a matter of law.
Castro is a frequent losing litigant. His record of litigiousness includes filing other outrageous defamation lawsuits, including one for $1.45 million against a former client and a $250 million suit against another tax professional, who had criticized Castro’s practice.
Fighting Abusive Lawsuits
Castro’s complaint against Chetsford has all the hallmarks of a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP). SLAPPs are meritless and abusive lawsuits used to suppress unflattering information. More than thirty states have enacted anti-SLAPP laws, but Castro filed his defamation claim in federal court, where defendants may have a limited ability to use a state anti-SLAPP law to facilitate early dismissal of the case.
Although Castro does not know Chetsford’s identity, he argues without any evidence that Chetsford resides outside of Texas, and therefore, the Texas federal court must invoke its “diversity jurisdiction” to hear a case involving citizens of different states. Castro is also trying to subpoena the Wikimedia Foundation in California federal court for records that will reveal Chetsford’s identity. The First Amendment prohibits courts from unmasking anonymous writers without a strong showing that they have likely violated the law. Castro’s conclusory and unfounded complaint fails to meet that burden.
CIR is fighting Castro’s subpoena and related efforts as a violation of Chetsford’s core First Amendment rights. Victory in Castro v. Doe will strengthen the right to engage in anonymous speech without facing costly and meritless lawsuits. It will also strengthen donors’ privacy rights when they give to policy or advocacy organizations in the face of now frequent state efforts to disclose contributors in violation of the First Amendment.