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Morris: Internet is the Wild West of blog posting

March 16, 2011
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commentary-morris-gregWhen you post a comment to a story on a media website, you are responsible for your words. At least that is the case at this time. Contrary to that opinion, many people think hiding behind an anonymous identity online should be a protected right.

This topic has been in the news recently. The Indianapolis Star wrote last week about a Marion County judge’s recently ordering the newspaper to identify anonymous posters to its website as it relates to an expanded defamation lawsuit filed by the former chief executive of Junior Achievement, Jeffrey Miller. The Star reported that WRTV-TV Channel 6 is under a similar order from the judge.

Indianapolis Business Journal, a sister publication of Indiana Lawyer, was pulled into this controversy in the middle of last year. IBJ received a subpoena and was asked to produce documents and records as a non-party in the lawsuit filed by Miller against Junior Achievement and other defendants. The suit alleges defamation, tortious interference with a business and/or contractual relationship, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

IBJ had written stories last March and April related to Miller’s exit from Junior Achievement and the above-mentioned lawsuit. The paper was asked to provide the identity of seven individuals who posted comments in response to some of those stories. IBJ resisted and a brief was filed on our behalf in support of a motion to quash the subpoena. IBJ did not believe the plaintiff had carried out his legally required burden to show how the request outweighed the First Amendment rights of the individuals he sought to identify.

The motion to quash was overruled and IBJ was required to turn over the identifying information. Most of the posters were operating with anonymous identities. They did not provide true names or e-mail addresses when they registered to post comments. However, whenever a comment is posted, an Internet Protocol address is recorded and that is where identities can be uncovered.

The Internet is a wonderful and amazing thing. But navigating it is like operating in the Wild West. There is little conformity and there are few rules. The rules that do exist seem to change daily. In the world of printed newspapers, there are fairly clear operating standards and libel laws that are meant to protect freedom of speech and the rights of individuals. Libel law strikes a balance between the protection of reputation and our “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide-open.” (New York Times v. Sullivan, 1964) In Indiana, this has been ruled to mean that a statement is not libelous unless it is a false statement that is harmful to someone’s reputation and made with actual malice. This protection under the First Amendment is afforded everyone, even those who post comments anonymously. 

But protections are less clear as they apply to learning the identity of those who post anonymously. The recent court orders discussed here send a message that you cannot make allegedly libelous comments and hide behind an anonymous identity in cyberspace. Some would argue that you should be able to, but why shouldn’t we require true identities on the Internet? We wouldn’t print a letter to the editor without believing we had a real name.

I predict we will see a lot more legal activity in this area before it’s all done. Could we see a Supreme Court decision someday? It’s possible. There are no easy answers. You need to be accountable for your words. But how do we prevent an avalanche of lawsuits that could intimidate people into being afraid to voice their opinions?

There is no doubt that some of the comments get out of control on many websites. It is a full-time job monitoring them. We leave comments up in their entirety or remove them. They are never altered. IBJ has wrestled with how to deal with this national phenomenon. We want to encourage reader interaction and expression of views, but there are rules. Here’s a partial list of those rules:

We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive or hateful.

Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in IBJ editorial content are also subject to removal.

You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.

The online conversation and debate will continue. As it does, let’s remember we are responsible for our words.•
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Greg Morris is publisher of IBJ, and president of IBJ Media. To comment on this column, send e-mail to gmorris@ibj.com.

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We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
 
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
 
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in Indiana Lawyer editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
 
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  1. This law is troubling in two respects: First, why wasn't the law reviewed "with the intention of getting all the facts surrounding the legislation and its actual impact on the marketplace" BEFORE it was passed and signed? Seems a bit backwards to me (even acknowledging that this is the Indiana state legislature we're talking about. Second, what is it with the laws in this state that seem to create artificial monopolies in various industries? Besides this one, the other law that comes to mind is the legislation that governed the granting of licenses to firms that wanted to set up craft distilleries. The licensing was limited to only those entities that were already in the craft beer brewing business. Republicans in this state talk a big game when it comes to being "business friendly". They're friendly alright . . . to certain businesses.

  2. Gretchen, Asia, Roberto, Tonia, Shannon, Cheri, Nicholas, Sondra, Carey, Laura ... my heart breaks for you, reaching out in a forum in which you are ignored by a professional suffering through both compassion fatigue and the love of filthy lucre. Most if not all of you seek a warm blooded Hoosier attorney unafraid to take on the government and plead that government officials have acted unconstitutionally to try to save a family and/or rescue children in need and/or press individual rights against the Leviathan state. I know an attorney from Kansas who has taken such cases across the country, arguing before half of the federal courts of appeal and presenting cases to the US S.Ct. numerous times seeking cert. Unfortunately, due to his zeal for the constitutional rights of peasants and willingness to confront powerful government bureaucrats seemingly violating the same ... he was denied character and fitness certification to join the Indiana bar, even after he was cleared to sit for, and passed, both the bar exam and ethics exam. And was even admitted to the Indiana federal bar! NOW KNOW THIS .... you will face headwinds and difficulties in locating a zealously motivated Hoosier attorney to face off against powerful government agents who violate the constitution, for those who do so tend to end up as marginalized as Paul Odgen, who was driven from the profession. So beware, many are mere expensive lapdogs, the kind of breed who will gladly take a large retainer, but then fail to press against the status quo and powers that be when told to heel to. It is a common belief among some in Indiana that those attorneys who truly fight the power and rigorously confront corruption often end up, actually or metaphorically, in real life or at least as to their careers, as dead as the late, great Gary Welch. All of that said, I wish you the very best in finding a Hoosier attorney with a fighting spirit to press your rights as far as you can, for you do have rights against government actors, no matter what said actors may tell you otherwise. Attorneys outside the elitist camp are often better fighters that those owing the powers that be for their salaries, corner offices and end of year bonuses. So do not be afraid to retain a green horn or unconnected lawyer, many of them are fine men and woman who are yet untainted by the "unique" Hoosier system.

  3. I am not the John below. He is a journalist and talk show host who knows me through my years working in Kansas government. I did no ask John to post the note below ...

  4. "...not those committed in the heat of an argument." If I ever see a man physically abusing a woman or a child and I'm close enough to intercede I will not ask him why he is abusing her/him. I will give him a split second to cease his attack and put his hands in the air while I call the police. If he continues, I will still call the police but to report, "Man down with a gunshot wound,"instead.

  5. And so the therapeutic state is weaonized. How soon until those with ideologies opposing the elite are disarmed in the name of mental health? If it can start anywhere it can start in the hoosiers' slavishly politically correct capital city.

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