Judge: Spokesman-Review Must ID Anonymous Commenter Accused of Libel

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See above a screenshot from the recent ruling.

The Spokane Spokesman-Review must name its anonymous commenter, “Almostinnocentbystander” so that an Idaho woman can sue for defamation.

iMediaEthics wrote last month about the case.  Tina Jacobson, the chairperson of the Kootenai County (Idaho) Republican Central Committee and also a comptroller for a small company, subpoenaed the Washington state newspaper for three anonymous commenters’ identities. One of those three commenters, “almostinnocentbystander,” accused her of stealing money, and the other two commented on the commenter’s claims.

Matt Andersen, Jacobson’s attorney, told iMediaEthics July 17 that she spotted the “defaming comments that accused her” while looking on the Spokesman-Review’s blog for pictures from an event she attended. “The community is small and many of her friends saw the comments on the blog,” he wrote.  “The accusation is flat false.  There has been an audit.  She takes this attack on her integrity and honest with the money of others as very serious.”

The Spokesman-Review was fighting the subpoena claiming “it violates the right to speak anonymously protected under the First Amendment” and that it “infringes on the reporter’s privilege” of the blog administrator.

Its editor, Gary Graham, told iMediaEthics July 17 that “we are disappointed in the judge’s ruling and we are concerned about the potentially chilling effect it could have on our online commenters.”

Graham confirmed that the newspaper doesn’t have to identify two other commenters whose identities Jacobson wanted.   He added that the newspaper hasn’t “Decided yet on whether we will appeal. The deadline for our report to the judge’s order is next Tuesday,” the 24th, he wrote.

Coeur d’Alene Press reported that the judge told the newspaper it must show Jacobson that it has banned the commenter, “Almostinnocentbystander.”

Jacobson’s attorney Anderson said of the ruling, “My client is pleased the court followed the long honored legal doctrine there is no constitutional right to defame, no matter what the media or if it is done openly or anonymously.  The opinion sets out why the judge did not direct surrender of the witnesses identity.  If the witnesses become critical at a later date, I may have to go back to the judge.”

Anderson added that personally, “The internet is a wonderful way to communicate information.  It is a very poor vehicle to communicate.  It lacks a social governor.  Despite the urban legend of a shield of protection around blogging, those that use the internet to defame have no legal protection.”

Hat Tip: Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas

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Judge: Spokesman-Review Must ID Anonymous Commenter Accused of Libel

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