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.
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.
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.