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A federal judge in Utah tossed out a lawsuit Monday by Koch Industries that sought to uncover the identities of anonymous environmentalist pranksters who put out a fake news release saying the company had reversed itself on global warming issues.
U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball also prohibited Koch from disclosing the identities of any members of the Youth for Climate Truth that the company learned as a result of earlier subpoenas, which the judge also quashed in his 18-page ruling.
The company sued in December after a fake news release referring to a near-perfect copy of the Koch website said the company had changed its policies on climate change to support environmentally friendly efforts.
Koch Industries, which is involved in oil refining, manufacturing of fertilizers, chemicals and the trading and marketing of minerals, is one of the largest privately held U.S. companies. The environmental group Greenpeace has called the Wichita, Kan., company "a financial kingpin of climate science denial and clean energy opposition."
A New Yorker article in August said brothers David and Charles Koch, who own the company, are financial patrons of and true believers in conservative politics who helped to fund tea party activists.
The Youth for Climate Truth news release said, "Koch Industries remains committed to environmental responsibility and stewardship, announcing today that it will restructure its support for organizations that undertake climate change research and advocacy." No news organizations treated the announcement as real.
Koch filed the lawsuit in Utah because the companies that hosted the website and registered the domain were based in Provo. Saying that its trademarks had been violated and its computers hacked, Koch Industries sought the names of people behind the hoax.
Kimball, however, ruled that because there was no commercial competition between Koch and Youth for Climate Truth, there was no violation of trademarks.
"Instead, it sought to draw public attention to Koch's controversial stance on a political issue," Kimball wrote.
Deepak Gupta, an attorney with the Public Citizen Litigation Group of Washington, D.C., which took on the case on behalf of the anonymous group, said "the court was right to dismiss the lawsuit."
"This lawsuit by Koch was a well-financed attempt by Koch to bully its political opponents into submission," said Gupta. "This is an important precedent that will prevent future lawsuits aimed at stifling political speech."
A Koch Industries spokeswoman, Melissa Cohlmia, said the company was reviewing its options.
"We are disappointed by the judge's decision and continue to stand by our earlier statements about this case," she said.
In an interview with Leo Hickman of The Guardian newspaper of London, a member of Youth for Climate Truth said the letter was the group's first and only prank.
"There won't be a next time this was a one-time spoof for us," the group told the newspaper. "Koch-funded climate inaction threatens our generation's security and prosperity and America's future success, so we told the truth about what Koch is doing in a creative way."