Subpoena ties U to corporate lawsuit

Sarah McKenzie

Federal authorities have once again subpoenaed a University lab technician’s computer hard drive for a heated court battle between two manufacturing heavyweights.
Ashley Wilkes, a photographer in the Art History department, was issued the court order July 20 for a federal civil case in Michigan pitting Amway Corporation against Procter & Gamble.
Amway, the household products manufacturing giant based in Michigan, sued Procter & Gamble last November, alleging the company subsidized an Internet smear campaign against the soap producer.
Wilkes has been implicated in the alleged campaign for maintaining an anti-Amway Motivational Organization Web site on the University’s server.
“Amway is trying to get rid of any criticism on the Internet,” Wilkes said. “They are trying to wear me down financially and emotionally.”
As a result, the University has also been ordered to hand over any online documents posted by Wilkes, according to a July 20 subpoena.
Amway attorneys have reportedly asked the University to shut down Wilkes’ site, but the Office of the General Counsel has refused and submitted objections to the subpoenas.
University attorneys working on the matter could not be reached for comment. The University is not representing Wilkes in the case.
Federal authorities first issued the lab technician a court order in February, but a federal judge later ruled that Wilkes did not have to forfeit his computer equipment because his Web site was not relevant to the case.
After the first subpoenas were issued, Associate General Counsel Bill Donohue said the University does not control the content of the Web sites and has no jurisdiction over Wilkes’ private activities.
Amway attorneys have since amended the first complaint against Procter & Gamble, adding another defendant in an attempt to broaden the lawsuit and target other Web site operators like Wilkes.
Sidney Schwartz, named in the new complaint, operates an anti-Amway Web site in Oregon. According to the complaint, Schwartz “has committed and is committing tortious acts with the intent and effect of harming Amway.”
Chad Strathman, Wilkes’ attorney, said the amended complaint has not changed his client’s involvement in the case.
Although he said he is confident that Wilkes’ Web site will remain protected in spite of the recent subpoena, Strathman acknowledged that outcomes in electronic law cases can be difficult to predict.
“It is still a dangerous area,” he said. “It is not clear where the right to privacy begins and ends on the Internet.”
According to an online Amway public relations statement, the company has no intention of infringing on the Web operators’ First Amendment rights.
“These subpoenas are not about freedom of speech; rather, they are about the collection of evidence,” the statement reads. “If these individuals and groups do not have information relevant to the lawsuit, these subpoenas should be of no concern.”
Although other Web site authors have torn down their sites because of Amway’s legal pressure, Wilkes said he refuses and has spent more than $4,000 in legal fees defending his Web site.
Wilkes worked for an Amway Motivational Organization for four years and alleges the experience contributed to the demise of his marriage and personal finances.
According to Wilkes’ Web site, the motivational organizations use “cultist” tactics to entice new recruits.
Amway’s official online statement contests the claims posted on the Internet, “Amway prefers to meet its competitors in the open marketplace, not cloaked behind a mask of false and misleading attacks.”