Thursday, March 03, 2011

Indiana judge orders news outlets to help identify anonymous commenters for libel plaintiff

An Indianapolis judge has ruled for the first time in Indiana that media outlets can be forced to reveal the identity of anonymous online commenters, though the state has a shield law to protect news-media sources. Marion Superior Court Judge S.K. Reid's ruiling came in a lawsuit by the former chief executive of Junior Achievement of Central Indiana against The Indianapolis Star, the Indianapolis Business Journal and WRTV, Jeff Swiatek of the Star reports. Miller is looking to "broaden the list of defendants in his case to include people who criticized him anonymously last year on websites" run by the newspapers and the TV station, Swiatek writes.

The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to rule on whether websites can be forced to identify online commenters, but the Miller case "is among a growing number of defamation claims nationally that target anonymous Internet posters," Swiatek writes. "We are seeing more and more defamation lawsuits being filed, that's clear. ... If this happens, then people will be less likely to comment" on public issues, said David Hudson, a First Amendment scholar at the First Amendment Center, affiliated with Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

The judge ruled the Star and Business Journal must turn over identifying information, which typically includes the commenter's Internet protocol address and service provider, who can be subpoenaed for the identifying information. The plaintiff's attorney said the Business Journal has already turned over the identifying information, but Star Editor and Vice President Dennis Ryerson said "We now are reviewing our legal options." The judge is expected to decide next week whether WRTV has to turn over similar information.

While still not revealing the identity of anonymous commenters on the Star website, Swiatek did note the identities of three of the commenters on the Business Journal website who have been added as defendants in the lawsuit. "This is not an assault on the shield law," plaintiff's attorney Kevin Betz said. "In fact, it is well within the bounds of the traditional terms of the shield law. I don't think the media should be interested . . . in protecting the identities of cyberbullies." (Read more)

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