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An Idaho judge ruled on July 10 that The Spokesman-Review had 14 days to reveal the identity of an online commenter after a Kootenai County politician sued the paper, claiming the commenter libeled her. On July 24 the paper reported that the commenter had revealed herself: Linda Cook, who’s also active in county politics.
Judge John Patrick Luster also waded into the question of whether the staffer who removed Cook’s comment from the newspaper blog was entitled to journalistic protections, Rick Anderson writes in Seattle Weekly:
Idaho doesn’t have a reporter’s shield law, to protect sources, and even if it did, Luster said, [Spokesman-Review blogger Dave] Oliveria was not acting as a journalist, in the judge’s view. Oliveria, who removed the comment a few hours after it was posted, was merely the “facilitator of commentary and administrator of the blog.”
Protections thus didn’t apply to the paper, nor to the commenter, the judge said (though he did turn down Jacobson’s request for the names of two other commenters). “While the individuals are entitled to the right of anonymous free speech, this right is clearly limited when abused,” Luster wrote.
The case put the newspaper in the position of defending its website comments, which its columnist Shawn Vestal called a “sewer of stupidity and insults and shallowness.” After the news of the ruling broke, Vestal wrote, the paper’s comments section went nuts:
Of course, many of these folks worried about the effect of the ruling on free speech. Because there is no speech that is quite so gloriously free as things no one knows you said. Speech that you do not have to own at all. Frail, cowardly insults, tossed out from behind an opaque veil, with the paid legal protection of an actual journalistic organization.
Oliveria defended anonymous comments to NPR’s Martin Kaste:
“In this town, there’s so much infighting, if some of these folks identified themselves, they couldn’t make these comments,” Oliveria says. “I have a lot of folks online here that are in a lot of key positions in the community.”
Writing about the case in the Los Angeles Times, Kim Murphy said, “The case isn’t necessarily precedent-setting.”
Courts in various states have been confronted with similar questions, and most have held that outright defamation isn’t allowed, anonymously or otherwise. What’s murky is the line between clear defamation expressed as fact — “Jane Doe stole $10,000 from the cash drawer on Feb. 12″ — and the shadier realm of opinion and the shooting off of mouths.
But certainly one could put together a decent (if probably bogus) trend story about this latest hit to anonymity. Earlier this year a landfill baron in New Orleans hired a forensic linguist to scour the work of an online critic; the linguist fingered Assistant U.S Attorney Salvador Perricone, which Perricone’s boss later confirmed.
And in April, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette turned over millions of IP addresses, from which users had accessed its site, to government officials investigating bomb threats made to the University of Pittsburgh. Many of them were emailed to Post-Gazette reporters. Those required a subpoena, the paper’s attorney Fritz Byers told the newspaper.
“But in response to the government’s subpoena and consistent with the Post-Gazette’s community values, we provided certain non-privileged, non-confidential information that the government legitimately sought, which did not involve identifying any individuals or their interactions with the Post-Gazette.”
Previously: New study: Real names improve quality of website comments | Judge: Posting 10 percent of news story on political forum is fair use | Anonymous comments can be ‘a frothing, bubbling cauldron of insanity’ | Why we’ll never stop struggling over comment sections