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Anonymous online commenter sued for libel (updated)

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by I Should Coco, Apr 26, 2012.

  1. I Should Coco

    I Should Coco Well-Known Member

    Interesting case of politics, caustic online comments and the media colliding in our neck of the woods.

    A county political leader believes she was libeled in an online comment. But she's not suing the newspaper web site where it appeared. Instead, she filed suit against the anonymous commenter, "John or Jane Doe":

    http://www.boiseweekly.com/CityDesk/archives/2012/04/26/idaho-gop-leader-sues-blog-commenter-for-libel

    Lots of tricky issues to deal with here:

    1. Can newspapers accurately identify anonymous posters, even if they register?

    2. Are any newspapers reviewing the content of online comments before they are posted? Should they?

    3. How can you collect a lawsuit award from someone whose identity isn't known?
     
  2. J-School Blue

    J-School Blue Member

    Re: Anonymous online commenter sued for libel

    The event I've awaited so long and so eagerly for has finally come.
     
  3. LongTimeListener

    LongTimeListener Well-Known Member

    Re: Anonymous online commenter sued for libel

    Yep, I will be watching this and rooting for the plaintiff.

    When this came up where I worked, this was about eight years ago, we were told NOT to moderate comments specifically because of this. If you moderate, the thinking went, then anything you didn't remove had your implicit endorsement. But I wish the politician would go whole hog and sue the paper too, because I don't think that legal reasoning has ever been tested.

    As for the identity and whether the newspaper can identify the person ... They can get a certain distance, and the rest depends on whether the person set up dummy accounts or rerouted his IP address.
     
  4. Mystery Meat II

    Mystery Meat II Well-Known Member

    Re: Anonymous online commenter sued for libel

    With dummy accounts and proxys, it's going to be pretty difficult to ID someone who knows how to cover their tracks.
     
  5. LongTimeListener

    LongTimeListener Well-Known Member

    Re: Anonymous online commenter sued for libel

    Right, but does the person in question know how to do that? Worth checking.
     
  6. D-3 Fan

    D-3 Fan Active Member

    Re: Anonymous online commenter sued for libel

    Coco, these are good questions. I'm with Mystery on the dummy proxies and IP addresses. Generally, I think that newspapers can ID anoyomous commenters, if they can find and track the IP addresses, which would link the commenters. But there are cases the anonymous commenter will use a PC at a library, where anyone could be on it and you can't figure out exactly who it is.

    In my personal opinion, these clowns will go to great lengths not to be traced and caught.

    When the DM Register started making people log in on Facebook with their real names to comment, it was good to see who they are and their names tied to their comments, so that readers can see who the nutcases are and either ignore or slam them. Will it resolve the anonoymous commenter issue? Nope, but something is better than nothing for the time being.
     
  7. Mystery Meat II

    Mystery Meat II Well-Known Member

    Re: Anonymous online commenter sued for libel

    And if they're using a cell phone signal to connect, the IP address changes frequently. Whoever you tag using the IP at any given point probably isn't the one who libeled using it earlier.

    Your only hope is that the person who did this wasn't thinking in those terms and used their home computer, with a static IP, to make the comments. Even then, if the network isn't secured, the accused party has a plausible defense by claiming that anyone could have snuck onto their network and made the comments. Shoulda password-protected it, they'd say.
     
  8. SixToe

    SixToe Active Member

    Re: Anonymous online commenter sued for libel

    Rooting for the plaintiff, too.

    Letters to the editor require a name and number for verification before publication. MuffyX94ps can say just about whatever he or she wants and "it's OK because it's online and we can't control or moderate everything."

    Bullshit. It's your business, your site, your name and reputation. Maybe some of this will get sorted out with this lawsuit.
     
  9. 31fan

    31fan New Member

    Re: Anonymous online commenter sued for libel

    Former journalist and media lawyer here. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act essentially immunizes a newspaper from liability in this instance, and there has been a fair amount of case law on this subject. I worked on a case called Brodie v. Independent Newspapers, which related to anonymous statements on a message board hosted by the newspaper -- a little bit different, but I don't think the distinction matters legally. Mr. Brodie sued several anonymous posters as well as the newspaper company, and the newspaper company won a motion to dismiss based on Section 230. I think the only way a newspaper could be successfully sued is if it very actively moderates the comments discussion.

    Assuming the plaintiff can state a valid case for libel, it is less clear legally whether the newspaper can be compelled to provide the identities of the anonymous posters. This was ultimately the main issue in the Brodie case. And that case occurred nearly 5 years ago, when I think it was more common for people to have static IP addresses. The analysis might be different today given technological advances.
     
  10. I Should Coco

    I Should Coco Well-Known Member

    Re: Anonymous online commenter sued for libel

    This is what our ME said to us yesterday (and no, I don't work for the paper involved in the lawsuit).

    Seems like letters to the editor are treated differently than online comments because, by selecting them to print in the newspaper, we are part of the "libeling" process. Even though letters have the writer's name attached, the newspaper can be sued, right?

    As 31fan noted, rapidly changing technology is challenging for both newspapers AND the media law that applies to them.
     
  11. apeman33

    apeman33 Well-Known Member

    Re: Anonymous online commenter sued for libel

    We were told from the start not to moderate comments and later told we can't edit them. The latter only came about because I edited out a curse word. "Once we edit it, we own it," was the reason. We either have to leave the comment up or remove ALL of it.

    However, for some reason, I am trusted with the banhammer. But it ends up being used mostly on spammers.

    People are required to register but it's amazing how many people have either the same address or the same phone number as the high school, city hall, the police department or the community college. Even better are the people who register with addresses or phone numbers that you can't have here such as 10000 Main St. or 111-111-1111.

    We did trace an IP number once. It was registered the to the State of Missouri. Well, that certainly narrowed down the number of suspects, considering we're a paper in Kansas.
     
  12. txsportsscribe

    txsportsscribe Active Member

    Re: Anonymous online commenter sued for libel

    main reason why we're not having comments on web site i'm working on. if they want to comment, they can comment on our facebook page.
     
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