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The Indianapolis Star now requires readers to use Facebook to comment on articles. See above a screenshot from the Indianapolis Star's commenting FAQs. (Credit: IndyStar.com, screenshot)

Indiana’s Court of Appeals issued an important ruling about claims of online defamation against anonymous commenters, according to the Associated Press.

A man named Jeffrey Miller is suing the Indianapolis Star commenter “DownwiththeColts” for an April 2010 comment on a March 19, 2010 Indianapolis Star story.

Miller is the former CEO of Junior Achievement of Central Indiana.

The Star’s story reported on the nonprofit group “Junior Achievement facing questions about its financial affairs, including questions about missed payments to contractors on a building project and unaccounted for grant money,” according to the AP.  “The article quoted Brian Payne, president of the Central Indiana Community Foundation, as saying payments from a fund to Junior Achievement wouldn’t resume until an independent auditor could sort through what had become of $765,000 in grant payments that Junior Achievement had already received.”

“DownWithTheColts” commented on that story that:

“This is not JA’s responsibility. They need to look at the FORMER president of JA and others on the (Foundation) board. The ‘missing’ money can be found in their bank accounts.”

Miller says the comments were “made with the knowledge that they were false or with reckless disregard for whether they were true,” according to the AP.  He is also suing Junior Achievement and the Central Indiana Community Foundation.

The appeals court “overturned a lower court’s ruling” calling for the newspaper to identify the commenter. We wrote last year about that ruling when the Indianapolis Star and the Indianapolis Business Journal were ordered to provide the “identifying information” of certain commenters to Miller.  At the time, the judge hadn’t ruled on Miller’s attempts to get commenter information from Indianapolis TV news station WRTV.  According to theIndyChannel.com, both Indianapolis Business Journal and WRTV “complied with the judge’s order” to give the identifying information of commenters.  However, the Indianapolis Star appealed.

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According to the AP, under the appeals court ruling Miller can’t get the identity of the anonymous commenter until he

  • Tells the commenter “through the Star’s website that the commenter is the subject of a subpoena.”
  • Shows “the exact statements he believes are defamatory”
  • Prove those statements “are false.”

The Indianapolis Star noted that Miller doesn’t have to “prove malice.”  The Star’s Dennis Ryerson told iMediaEthics that the newspaper jjust has to wait to see “what takes place in the lower court” now.

The Hoosier State Press Association’s executive director and general counsel Stephen Key explained to the AP that the appeals court ruling will help “weed out frivolous libelous claims.”  Key is quoted as saying:  “Now they have to go through a hurdle to show they have a legitimate libel case before an anonymous poster would be required to be identified in court.”

According to the Indianapolis Star’s report on the ruling, “both sides” of the lawsuit — the newspaper and Miller — are “partially satisfied” with the ruling.  The Star’s Dennis Ryerson told iMediaEthics that “We are pleased that the appeals court remanded the case back to the lower court.  While we think the state’s shield law offers protection, it is good that the appeals court said there needed to be a process before the identities of online posters must be revealed.”

This anonymous commenter issue shouldn’t be a problem for the Indianapolis Star moving forward because the AP reported that late last year the newspaper started using Facebook for comment posting.  The Star’s Dennis Ryerson told iMediaEthics that “the move of comment to Facebook was wholly unrelated to ‘DownWithTheColts’ issue.”

WRTV’s news director Kevin Finch, who wasn’t at the station then, told iMediaEthics by e-mail that “to our managers’ recollection, two comments from one commenter were involved.”  He noted that the station turned over the commenter’s information because of the judge’s order.

We have written to the Indianapolis Business Journal for more information and will update with any response.

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Indiana Court Reverses Order for Anonymous Commenter’s Identity to be Given in Defamation Suit

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