Commenters cannot hide behind anonymity
It’s no secret that people who comment anonymously on Internet news and blog sites tend to be more vitriolic and irresponsible than they likely would be in person.
That’s one reason The Daily Sentinel eliminated anonymous commenting last year at GJSentinel.com.
Now, legal cases around the country are beginning to demonstrate that commenting anonymously offers little protection against libel lawsuits or criminal prosecution.
Just last week, a judge in Shawnee County, Kan., ordered The Topeka Capital-Journal to reveal the identity of a person who used a pseudonym to comment anonymously about a news story regarding a murder trial.
The commenter was a member of the jury, and the judge said the poster’s identity was relevant to an investigation of possible criminal misconduct during the trial. The juror could face felony charges for his commenting.
In a libel case in Idaho this year, a state judge ordered a newspaper to reveal the name of an anonymous commenter who is the subject of a libel suit. The plaintiff, a local Republican leader who was accused of embezzling from the county GOP by the commenter, had no way to challenge her accuser unless the paper revealed the commenter’s identity.
In a libel case in Georgia, the anonymous commenter received more protection from a local judge, who refused to order a newspaper to reveal the commenter’s identity. However, even that protection was limited, because the judge said he might still order the name revealed if the plaintiff meets certain conditions.
In all these cases, it is clear the First Amendment doesn’t provide absolute protection for those who comment anonymously. Nor are they due the same protection as anonymous sources that newspapers might use in preparing news stories.
The legal landscape for dealing with anonymous commenting is continuing to develop, but there is little indication that courts will somehow give commenters a pass when it comes to libeling others or committing crimes. The best advice — whether people are commenting anonymously or revealing their identities as they must do at GJSentinel.com — is to think carefully before hitting the “send” key.