Be careful what you write when supposedly commenting under the guise of anonymity. The news site may not be so anonymous after all, especially if there's a defamation suit involved.
This is what is currently happening in Indiana. Stories ran in The Indianapolis Star and Indianapolis Business Journal last year about the halting of Junior Achievement of Central Indiana expansion at its northeast-side headquarters over questions about missed payments to contractors and unaccounted-for grant money stemming from the time former CEO, Jeffrey Miller, had the job. In response, Miller and his wife, Cynthia, filed a defamation suit against Jennifer Burk, who is the current chief executive of Junior Achievement; Brian Payne, who is president of Central Indiana Community Foundation; and both of their organizations. But they then amended the complaint to include as many as nine other people and three entities as defendants because of anonymous comments made on three news media websites last year. The media websites belong to The Indianapolis Star, Indianapolis Business Journal, and WRTV (Channel 6).
The online statements that Miller considers defamatory include the accusation that he committed "most likely a criminal act," a description of him as "the most greedy man I've ever known," and a comment saying "somebody needs to call the state's attorney general and investigate him," according to the lawsuit, according to The Indianapolis Star.
A Marion County judge has ruled that Miller must be given the names and/or other information that would help him to identify the writers of online comments posted anonymously on the three websites. Both the newspaper and the journal have been avoiding Miller's legal efforts to enforce the handing over of information, such as the Internet protocol address, that would help him identify the posters. Miller also has served a subpoena to WRTV (Channel 6), seeking information about posters to its site. The judge's ruling on that request, which the station also is fighting, is expected this week.
These rulings by Superior Court Judge S.K. Reid are the first example of an Indiana judge ruling on the issue of whether state journalism shield law protects media outlets from being forced to disclose names, or other identifying information they hold, of anonymous posters on their websites, said Kevin Betz, an attorney for Miller. Dennis Ryerson, editor and vice president of The Indianapolis Star, wouldn't comment on the judge's ruling beyond saying: "We now are reviewing our legal options."
This defamation suit brings up larger questions about online forums, as addressed in a recent blog entry about NPR's tightened policy on censoring comments to its website. Is it better to filter comments in an effort to eliminate potentially slanderous, ignorant remarks, or to leave it up to the initiative of the defendant--the potentially slandered and insulted in the news--to fight a battle to salvage their reputation? The former prevents the unfortunate outcome of public humiliation whether being found guilty or not by a court of law, as well as preventing the expensive legal process of suing for defamation. But the latter supports free speech.
What do you think? Is free speech worth the cost of potential slander?
Perhaps the solution, wagered by NPR and TechCrunch in an article out today about Facebook's new commenting system, is not to censor but to ensure that people use their real identities. "Of course, some people don't want to comment with their real names for good reason (they want to speak freely without fear of reprisals), but for the most part in practice anonymity [can be] abused." For TechCrunch, "It was used mostly as a shield to hide behind and throw out invective." The question now is, "Have the trolls really vanished or will they return?"