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Justices pass on Star anonymous online commenter case, reinstate order to identify

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The Indiana Supreme Court chose not to further review long-running litigation involving whether The Indianapolis Star must reveal the identity of an online commenter. The decision came one day after justices heard oral arguments.

The court issued an order Friday reinstating the divided Court of Appeals ruling in Indiana Newspapers, Inc. v. Miller, 980 N.E.2d 852 (Ind. Ct. App. 2012), aff’d on reh’g (Ind. Ct. App. 2013). That order required The Star to provide identifying characteristics of a commenter who posted a comment on IndyStar.com under the screen name DownWithTheColts.

The court’s one-page order doesn’t explain why justices opted to vacate transfer, a 4-1 decision from which Justice Loretta Rush dissented.

At issue are comments directed at former Junior Achievement of Indiana CEO Jeffrey Miller, who has sued multiple parties for defamation and sought to add people who made anonymous comments on news organization websites that ran stories about Miller and JA.

Attorney Kevin Betz of Betz+Blevins argued to the Supreme Court on Thursday that the litigation had gone on far too long and The Star had been under court orders for more than a year to turn over identifying information about DownWithTheColts.

“Jeff Miller is a simple, proud man who for three years has fought for his constitutional right to repair his reputation,” Betz told the justices.

“This is not First Amendment protected speech,” he said. “This is vile, mean-spirited speech. … It was a concerted effort to smear Mr. Miller.”

Barnes & Thornburg attorney Jan Carroll argued that the First Amendment considerations merited the high court’s review, and that the speech of DownWithTheColts was precisely the kind that warrants protection.

“Nobody sues because Eddie Haskell says something nice about them,” Carroll said. She noted that the comments failed to pass a believability test and there was a lack of evidence on a defamation claim because Miller had shown people continued to believe he was a man of integrity.

“There still has to be a showing of causation, and that people believed it,” Carroll said of DownWithTheColts’ comments.  

Carroll could not be reached for comment on Monday, but Barnes partner Mark J. Crandley who worked on the litigation said The Star would consider its response to the ruling and is “going to look at every possible angle.”

“Obviously it’s a very complicated situation, and we’re going to have to look at what the denial of transfer means,” Crandley said. “Given the First Amendment implications, we definitely want to take a good hard look at what the options are.”

Betz said his client, too, was reviewing the decision and after it’s certified, “We’ll be considering what to do next, including filing a motion for contempt with the trial court.” Betz said for nine months The Star has had an order to turn over the information with no stay from a court.

The Star has since modified the comments section of its website and users must now post comments using a Facebook login.
 
Thursday’s oral arguments in the case may be viewed online here.

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