Anonymity for Online Newspaper Comments

September 8, 2008

Judge G. Todd Baugh recently granted a motion filed by The Billings Gazette to quash a subpoena that sought information that may lead to the identity of those who post comments on the newspaper’s online edition.

The claimant, Russ Doty, was a 2004 candidate for the Public Service Commission and he issued the subpoena as part of his civil lawsuit against his successful rival in that election, Brad Molnar. The lawsuit accuses Molnar of libel and slander during the campaign.

The judge found that the state shield law that protects reporters from disclosing anonymous sources also protects the identity of anonymous commenters on a newspaper’s Web site.

The judge also noted that the information sought from The Gazette related to comments made long after the 2004 campaign. The judge questioned whether the anonymous comments had enough credibility to reach the legal requirements of libel and defamation. ‘I can’t imagine an anonymous comment has much credence whatsoever,’ Baugh said.

Doty said he sought the information from the newspaper to bolster his claim that his reputation in the community had been harmed by the alleged libel he attributes to Molnar. Several newspaper commenters would be valuable witnesses in his case, Doty told the judge. Doty also sought the identity of newspaper bloggers whom he suspected of being Molnar himself. In a deposition taken previously in the case, Molnar denied that he used the monikers ‘CutiePie’ and ‘Always, wondering’ to post comments on the newspaper’s Web site.

For the full story from the Billings Gazette, click here, but beware because the Gazette is an addictive publication.

For a UK perspective, see Ashley Hurst’s recent article on Libel and Privacy on the Internet: click here.