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Shield law ruling unique in nation

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In balancing free speech and a person’s protection against defamation, the Indiana Court of Appeals held that anonymous online commenters to media websites are not “sources” protected by the state’s shield law if they aren’t part of the newsgathering process.

In the court’s Feb. 21 decision, Judge Nancy Vaidik wrote that an anonymous commenter is not a source as envisioned by Indiana’s Shield Law, and this holding is consistent with the state Legislature’s intent.
 

vaidik-nancy.jpg Vaidik

When it comes to determining when anonymous posters’ identities should be revealed because of potentially defamatory statements, the judges adopted a standard that’s increasingly being used by courts across the country.

“Our court struck a profound balance on the limits of this kind of activity, and said protecting online commenters with the shield law is a bad idea and can injure journalism,” said Indianapolis attorney Kevin Betz, who represented Jeffrey and Cynthia Miller in their defamation suit.

The Millers sued multiple parties who made remarks alleging Jeffrey Miller, the former president of Junior Achievement of Central Indiana, misused money. A story published in The Indianapolis Star about how Junior Achievement had missed payments with contracts on a building project and misappropriated grant money led to an anonymous comment by “DownWithTheColts” on The Star’s website. Miller sought to add several anonymous online commenters from various media outlets to his suit.

A Marion Superior judge in February 2011 ordered the news outlets to turn over information to identify commenters. The Star refused, arguing it was protected by the First Amendment, the Indiana Constitution and the state shield law from having to comply with the discovery requests.

The Court of Appeals reversed in In Re: Indiana Newspapers, Inc. d/b/a The Indianapolis Star, Jeffrey M. Miller & Cynthia S. Miller v. Junior Achievement of Central Indiana, Inc, et al., No. 49A02-1103-PL-234, and held that Indiana’s Shield Law does not protect “DownWithTheColts” because the commenter is not a reporter, editor or owner of The Indianapolis Star and was not a source of information for the story because the comments were posted after the story was written.

Betz said he believes this appeal is unique because it’s the first appellate ruling he knows of nationally that has ruled on this issue of shield law protection for anonymous news comments.

Although the court rejected The Star’s shield law argument, the panel suggested that shield law protection could be warranted where commenters were considered sources and part of the newsgathering process.

Other jurisdictions

Indiana has joined a growing number of states that have adopted a heightened standard for courts to use to determine whether an anonymous online comment rises to the level of defamation. Most are using some variety of two standards: the Dendrite test, arising from a 2001 New Jersey case that involved anonymous commenters on a Yahoo! message board; or the Cahill test, which comes from a 2005 Delaware Supreme Court case that involved anonymous comments on a blog and modified the earlier Dendrite test.

Examples of the use of Dendrite and Cahill tests are scattered throughout case briefs and U.S. courts at the state and federal levels.

Tennessee and Maryland courts have applied Dendrite’s multistep analysis to determine if the plaintiffs were entitled to identification of an anonymous blogger. The Maryland appellate court concluded that too low a threshold “would inhibit the use of the Internet as a marketplace of ideas,” but that too high a threshold would “undermine personal accountability and the search for truth by requiring claimants to essentially prove their case before even knowing who the commentator was.”

The Western District of Washington has also adopted a Dendrite-style test, requiring a plaintiff to produce prima facie evidence to support all of the elements of a defamation claim and using the standard to quash a subpoena seeking the identity of an Internet site’s owner and operator that wrote about a marketing company.

Not every court examining anonymous comment cases have relied on Dendrite or Cahill. An Illinois appellate court refused to adopt either standard in 2010. The court rejected the idea that the plaintiff’s claim should be tested by a summary judgment standard rather than a motion to dismiss standard, reasoning that Illinois is a fact-pleading jurisdiction that requires a legally and factually sufficient complaint. The court further held that once the plaintiff has set forth a prima facie case, he has made a valid claim for damages and has a right to expect a remedy.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has held the type of appropriate test will vary depending on the type of speech. The appellate court last year denied a mandamus petition that would have directed the District of Idaho to vacate its order to unmask anonymous Internet posters after the lower court had considered several possible tests and applied Cahill.

In its ruling, the appellate court found the lower court didn’t inquire into the speakers’ identities and clarify the nature of speech, but still adopted the two-part test derived from Cahill. The 9th Circuit noted that applying the “rigorous” Cahill standard is “understandable” in cases involving political speech. But in the context of less-protected commercial speech, “Cahill’s bar extends too far” and the District Court’s two-part test was only appropriate, if ever, in a case concerning free speech.

In looking at which heightened standard to use for Indiana, Vaidik wrote that the Dendrite test is the most appropriate balance between protecting anonymous speech and preventing defamatory speech because of its flexibility. But because of the requirement to prove actual malice, the judges adopted a modified Dendrite test – similar to what the Arizona Court of Appeals did in 2007. The modified standard requires the plaintiff to produce prima facie evidence to support only those elements of his or her cause of action that are not dependent on the commenter’s identity. Prima facie evidence of actual malice isn’t required.

Applying that standard to Miller’s case, the court found that the statement made by “DownWithTheColts” is defamatory per se, and that Miller now needs to provide proof that the statement is false in order for his defamation claim to move forward.

In adopting that modified test, the appellate court allowed trial judges to use the summary judgment standard and weigh factors such as the type of speech, the speaker’s expectation of privacy, the potential consequence of a discovery order, the need for the speaker’s identity, and the availability of other discovery methods.

“With this decision, Indiana joins the growing consensus in state and federal courts around the country that the Dendrite balancing test is the best way to reconcile the free speech rights of anonymous Internet speakers against the interest of plaintiffs who really have been wronged by online speech in pursuing genuine legal claims,” said Paul Alan Levy, an attorney with nonprofit advocacy organization Public Citizen in Washington, D.C., an amicus party opposing the disclosure of the commenter’s identity. “Requiring proof and a showing of genuine need for the speaker’s identity can help prevent powerful interests from discouraging criticism by the threat of baseless litigation.”

Washington, D.C., attorney Charles Tobin, who represented an amicus party made up of five media outlets, called the Indiana ruling First Amendment friendly.

“Courts have had to make policy decisions on whether we should promote growth of the Internet,” he said. “Some believe it’s a breeding ground for obnoxious speech, but if the First Amendment stands for anything, it’s that one man’s vulgarity is another man’s lyric. We may not like the message and may really hate the messenger, but we have to allow for maximum speech and the methods it is expressed.”•
 

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  • chilling effect on free speech and the net
    Very contrary to the trend of public opinion. Legislators should step in here and force defamation law to come in step with the times. Too often used by the rich and powerful to chill speech. Political correctness another such trend. So much for free inquiry and the marketplace of ideas.

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  1. OK, take notice. Those wondering just how corrupt the Indiana system is can see the picture in this post. Attorney Donald James did not criticize any judges, he merely, it would seem, caused some clients to file against him and then ignored his own defense. James thus disrespected the system via ignoring all and was also ordered to reimburse the commission $525.88 for the costs of prosecuting the first case against him. Yes, nearly $526 for all the costs, the state having proved it all. Ouch, right? Now consider whistleblower and constitutionalist and citizen journalist Paul Ogden who criticized a judge, defended himself in such a professional fashion as to have half the case against him thrown out by the ISC and was then handed a career ending $10,000 bill as "half the costs" of the state crucifying him. http://www.theindianalawyer.com/ogden-quitting-law-citing-high-disciplinary-fine/PARAMS/article/35323 THE TAKEAWAY MESSAGE for any who have ears to hear ... resist Star Chamber and pay with your career ... welcome to the Indiana system of (cough) justice.

  2. GMA Ranger, I, too, was warned against posting on how the Ind govt was attempting to destroy me professionally, and visit great costs and even destitution upon my family through their processing. No doubt the discussion in Indy today is likely how to ban me from this site (I expect I soon will be), just as they have banned me from emailing them at the BLE and Office of Bar Admission and ADA coordinator -- or, if that fails, whether they can file a complaint against my Kansas or SCOTUS law license for telling just how they operate and offering all of my files over the past decade to any of good will. The elitist insiders running the Hoosier social control mechanisms realize that knowledge and a unified response will be the end of their unjust reign. They fear exposure and accountability. I was banned for life from the Indiana bar for questioning government processing, that is, for being a whistleblower. Hoosier whistleblowers suffer much. I have no doubt, Gma Ranger, of what you report. They fear us, but realize as long as they keep us in fear of them, they can control us. Kinda like the kids' show Ants. Tyrannical governments the world over are being shaken by empowered citizens. Hoosiers dealing with The Capitol are often dealing with tyranny. Time to rise up: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jan/17/governments-struggling-to-retain-trust-of-citizens-global-survey-finds Back to the Founders! MAGA!

  3. Science is showing us the root of addiction is the lack of connection (with people). Criminalizing people who are lonely is a gross misinterpretation of what data is revealing and the approach we must take to combat mental health. Harsher crimes from drug dealers? where there is a demand there is a market, so make it legal and encourage these citizens to be functioning members of a society with competitive market opportunities. Legalize are "drugs" and quit wasting tax payer dollars on frivolous incarceration. The system is destroying lives and doing it in the name of privatized profits. To demonize loneliness and destroy lives in the land of opportunity is not freedom.

  4. Good luck, but as I have documented in three Hail Mary's to the SCOTUS, two applications (2007 & 2013),a civil rights suit and my own kicked-to-the-curb prayer for mandamus. all supported in detailed affidavits with full legal briefing (never considered), the ISC knows that the BLE operates "above the law" (i.e. unconstitutionally) and does not give a damn. In fact, that is how it was designed to control the lawyers. IU Law Prof. Patrick Baude blew the whistle while he was Ind Bar Examiner President back in 1993, even he was shut down. It is a masonic system that blackballs those whom the elite disdain. Here is the basic thrust:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackballing When I asked why I was initially denied, the court's foremost jester wrote back that the ten examiners all voted, and I did not gain the needed votes for approval (whatever that is, probably ten) and thus I was not in .. nothing written, no explanation, just go away or appeal ... and if you appeal and disagree with their system .. proof positive you lack character and fitness. It is both arbitrary and capricious by its very design. The Hoosier legal elites are monarchical minded, and rejected me for life for ostensibly failing to sufficiently respect man's law (due to my stated regard for God's law -- which they questioned me on, after remanding me for a psych eval for holding such Higher Law beliefs) while breaking their own rules, breaking federal statutory law, and violating federal and state constitutions and ancient due process standards .. all well documented as they "processed me" over many years.... yes years ... they have few standards that they will not bulldoze to get to the end desired. And the ISC knows this, and they keep it in play. So sad, And the fed courts refuse to do anything, and so the blackballing show goes on ... it is the Indy way. My final experience here: https://www.scribd.com/document/299040062/Brown-ind-Bar-memo-Pet-cert I will open my files to anyone interested in seeing justice dawn over Indy. My cases are an open book, just ask.

  5. Looks like 2017 will be another notable year for these cases. I have a Grandson involved in a CHINS case that should never have been. He and the whole family are being held hostage by CPS and the 'current mood' of the CPS caseworker. If the parents disagree with a decision, they are penalized. I, along with other were posting on Jasper County Online News, but all were quickly warned to remove posts. I totally understand that some children need these services, but in this case, it was mistakes, covered by coorcement of father to sign papers, lies and cover-ups. The most astonishing thing was within 2 weeks of this child being placed with CPS, a private adoption agency was asking questions regarding child's family in the area. I believe a photo that was taken by CPS manager at the very onset during the CHINS co-ocerment and the intent was to make money. I have even been warned not to post or speak to anyone regarding this case. Parents have completed all requirements, met foster parents, get visitation 2 days a week, and still the next court date is all the way out till May 1, which gives them(CPS) plenty of to time make further demands (which I expect) No trust of these 'seasoned' case managers, as I have already learned too much about their dirty little tricks. If they discover that I have posted here, I expect they will not be happy and penalized parents again. Still a Hostage.

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