Tuesday, May 22, 2012

New twist to online libel

There's a scary lawsuit going on in northern Idaho right now that might be a harbinger of things to come in Internet message boards.

First, here's the post on the Spokane Spokesman-Reviews blog, Huckleberries:
Kootenai County GOP Central Committee Chairman Tina Jacobsen has filed a lawsuit gains a Huckleberries Online commenter who goes by the pseudonym "almostinnocentbystander." The Spokesman-Review is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit. Jacobson is claiming that the anonymous commenter “committed a tort of libel by publishing, via the internet, a malicious defamation” on Huckleberries Online about Jacobson during the visit of GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum to Coeur d'Alene in mid-February. According to the lawsuit, “almostinnocentbystander,” had commented at Huckleberries Online that “there was $10,000 missing from the Republican Central Committee funds and that the missing funds were hidden on the person of Mrs. Jacobson.” The suit goes on to say that Huckleberries blogger D.F. Oliveria removed the comment. The complaint adds that Oliveria and the Spokesman-Review refused to provide the identity of the commenter to Jacobson. The lawsuit seeks damages  from the anonymous poster for alleged libel and an injunction to prevent future acts of libel.  It is expected that, as part of the litigation, the plaintiff will seek to learn the identity of the anonymous poster. 
Numerous court cases over recent years have found that web sites cannot be held liable for comments made by anonymous posters. This lawsuit takes something of a different tack, asking the newspaper to reveal the name of the poster, apparently so the plaintiff can then go after that person in a libel tort.

I have little sympathy for web sites, including those hosted by newspapers, that allow anonymous posts. Anonymity removes accountability from the process, and people are emboldened to say outrageous things. Message boards tend to degenerate into name-calling anyway, but they are worse when the participants are anonymous.

But that's not the issue here. The question the judge is being asked to decide is whether the newspaper must identify the poster. On this matter, I side with the newspaper -- if the courts have found that web sites cannot be held liable for the comments of anonymous posters, then it should follow that the owners of web sites shouldn't have to provide the names of those posters (in many cases, I suspect, the newspaper or other web site host doesn't know the identities anyway).

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