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COA to consider journalistic shield protections for anonymous online comments

December 9, 2011

The Indiana Court of Appeals hears arguments Monday on a question of first impression for the Internet-savvy 21st century: whether news outlets have any First Amendment or state journalistic shield protection from being required to disclose information that could help reveal the identities of people posting anonymous comments online.

A three-judge panel made up of Judges Carr Darden, Ezra Friedlander and Nancy Vaidik will hear arguments at 1 p.m. Monday in the Indiana Supreme Court’s courtroom in the case of The Indianapolis Star v. Jeffrey M. Miller, et al., Case No. 49A02-1103-PL-234.

The Marion County case involves newspaper coverage of Jeffrey Miller, the former president and CEO of a non-profit youth education group known as Junior Achievement of Central Indiana. In March 2010, The Indianapolis Star published an article about an audit the organization was facing and a reader, known as “DownWithTheColts” posted a comment on the online story, saying the state attorney general should investigate Miller about missing money.

Miller and his wife, Cynthia, filed a complaint against officials with Junior Achievement and the Central Indiana Community Foundation on various claims that included defamation, and they later expanded the lawsuit to target the anonymous posters at the Star and Indianapolis Business Journal (a sister publication of Indiana Lawyer). Specifically relating to the Star, Miller sought non-party discovery to turn over information about the identity of “DownWithTheColts.”

Marion Superior Judge S.K. Reid last year ordered that information be turned over. The information is typically an Internet protocol address or Internet service provider that an attorney can use to subpoena the provider for the poster’s real name. The Star contested the disclosure order, and earlier this year Reid ruled that an Indiana journalism shield law that protects reporters from having to reveal their sources does not protect websites from being forced to disclose who made anonymous posts.

This is the first ruling of its kind in Indiana, and this case is part of a national trend involving claims that target anonymous comments on websites operated by news media and other owners.

On appeal, the Star argues that Indiana’s journalist shield statute, Article 1, Section 9 of the Indiana Constitution and the First Amendment protect the newspaper because it is immune from liability for defamatory material posted by third-party users on the website. Amicus parties that have filed briefs urging the appellate court to block the disclosure include Public Citizen Inc., The Electronic Freedom Foundation and news organizations Lee Enterprises, Lin Television Corp, The E.W. Scripps Company, Gray Television and the Hoosier State Press Association.

 

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