Washington (State) Paper Fighting Subpoena for Anonymous Commenters' Identi

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(Credit: Spokesman-Review, screenshot)

The chairperson of an Idaho Republican Party committee wants Washington state newspaper the Spokesman-Review to give her the identity of “three individuals who commented anonymously about her” for a libel lawsuit, the Associated Press reported.

The Spokesman-Review is a daily Spokane, Washington newspaper with a circulation of about 70,000 copies, according to Mondo Times.

Tina Jacobson, the chairperson of the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee, is suing the anonymous commenter  “almostinnocentbystander,” for writing comments that “suggested in a posting that she might have stolen money from the GOP,” according to the AP.

Jacobson wants to know who that commenter is and who commenters “Phaedrus” and “OutofStatertater” are — commenters who “questioned the substance of the claim,” which prompted “almostinnocentbystander” to make more claims about Jacobson. The Spokesman-Review, however, will not give the identities up, according to the AP, which quotes the newspaper’s attorney Duane Swinton as saying “We’re here for the rights of people to speak anonymously on the Internet. We’re here as an advocate for First Amendment rights.”

Interestingly, the Spokesman-Review took down the comments “shortly after” they were posted because they were contained an “unsubstantiated accusation,” the AP reported The Spokesman-Review’s editor, Gary Graham, told iMediaEthics by e-mail that the comments in question were “removed within a matter of hours.” According to the Spokesman-Review’scommenting guidelines, commenters are asked to “keep your comments in good taste.”  Further, the newspaper’s website bans the posting of “defamatory or libelous” information and more.

We asked The Spokesman-Review’s editor Graham how the newspaper’s website moderates comments. He explained that they aren’t regulated pre-publication, but “editors and online producers monitor the comments on a regular basis throughout the day and evening.”

The newspaper’s website does require that commenters register for a profile on the site.  The profile form calls for an e-mail address but not a real name.

The Spokesman-Review wrote May 5 when Jacobson subpoenaed the newspaper for the commenter’s identity and noted at the time that it planned to fight the subpoena. According to that post, the Spokesman-Review’s publisher, Cowles Publishing, “filed a motion to quash the subpoena, saying that it violates the right to speak anonymously protected under the First Amendment and that it infringes on the reporter’s privilege of blogger Dave Oliveria.”

The Spokesman-Review’s Graham told iMediaEthics yesterday that the newspaper was “in court this morning, asking the judge to squash the subpoena” and the judge is taking “the matter under advisement.” According to Graham, “it’s likely to be at least a couple of weeks before we get a ruling.”

Graham noted that “I believe this is the first time someone has subpoenaed us for ID on commenters.”

Graham added: “We are quite concerned about the outcome of this case. Producing or outing sources and commenters is not something we take lightly and we are concerned about the chilling effect of such requests.”

We wrote earlier this year about a significant ruling in Indiana about anonymous commenting. The state’s Court of Appeals ruled that a man suing the Indianapolis Star for anonymous comments that he said libeled him must prove a few things before the newspaper would have to turn over the identity of the commenters.  Specifically, the court said the man must identify which “exact statements he believes are defamatory,” and prove they are false statements.   Read more about that case here.

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Washington (State) Paper Fighting Subpoena for Anonymous Commenters’ Identity

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