Plain Dealer settles comment lawsuit, limits of anonymity untested

Cleveland.com
Last week’s out-of-court settlement of a reader comment lawsuit in Cleveland leaves several questions of newsroom operations and ethics unanswered.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer settled a suit brought by a Cuyahoga County Judge after an editor identified her as the source of a series of anonymous comments on Cleveland.com.

The comments, connected to cases before Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold, were traced to an account used by her family. Saffold denied making the comments and claimed her daughter was the source of the postings.

The Ohio Supreme Court removed Saffold from one case following the revelations citing the need to avoid the “appearance of bias.”

Saffold brought suit against the website and The Plain Dealer, claiming her right to privacy had been breached by the release of her identity in connection with the comments.

Details of the financial settlement were not disclosed. But, a story on Cleveland.com last Friday indicates, among other terms, a donation was made to Olivet Institutional Baptist Church choir in Saffold’s name.

In general, news sites agree to provide confidentiality for anonymous commenters, as well as privacy protections for anyone submitting an e-mail address or other personal information in return for site access. Cleveland.com provides those terms of service in its user agreement and privacy policy.

The question of law in this specific case would have hinged on those terms of service. But, more broadly, the question of the process of managing comments, and the ethics of unveiling an anonymous commenter, deserve further discussion industry-wide.

A few of the dilemmas that the case highlights:

  • Do your website’s terms of service provide appropriate protections to your organization as well as to your readers?
  • Do anonymous commenters deserve protection similar to anonymous news sources?
  • Should newsroom personnel have access to the e-mail addresses or real names of registered Web users?
  • Under what circumstances do a commenter’s actions merit a public unmasking of his or her identity?
  • Do you have internal policies in place to manage these situations as they arise?

If your newsroom does not have a clear answer to each of those questions, it is time to review your internal procedures and make it a New Year’s resolution to update your Web terms of service.

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