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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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COMMENTS POLICY
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.
 
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
 
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.
 

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

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  1. I expressed my thought in the title, long as it was. I am shocked that there is ever immunity from accountability for ANY Government agency. That appears to violate every principle in the US Constitution, which exists to limit Government power and to ensure Government accountability. I don't know how many cases of legitimate child abuse exist, but in the few cases in which I knew the people involved, in every example an anonymous caller used DCS as their personal weapon to strike at innocent people over trivial disagreements that had no connection with any facts. Given that the system is vulnerable to abuse, and given the extreme harm any action by DCS causes to families, I would assume any degree of failure to comply with the smallest infraction of personal rights would result in mandatory review. Even one day of parent-child separation in the absence of reasonable cause for a felony arrest should result in severe penalties to those involved in the action. It appears to me, that like all bureaucracies, DCS is prone to interpret every case as legitimate. This is not an accusation against DCS. It is a statement about the nature of bureaucracies, and the need for ADDED scrutiny of all bureaucratic actions. Frankly, I question the constitutionality of bureaucracies in general, because their power is delegated, and therefore unaccountable. No Government action can be unaccountable if we want to avoid its eventual degeneration into irrelevance and lawlessness, and the law of the jungle. Our Constitution is the source of all Government power, and it is the contract that legitimizes all Government power. To the extent that its various protections against intrusion are set aside, so is the power afforded by that contract. Eventually overstepping the limits of power eliminates that power, as a law of nature. Even total tyranny eventually crumbles to nothing.

  2. Being dedicated to a genre keeps it alive until the masses catch up to the "trend." Kent and Bill are keepin' it LIVE!! Thank you gentlemen..you know your JAZZ.

  3. Hemp has very little THC which is needed to kill cancer cells! Growing cannabis plants for THC inside a hemp field will not work...where is the fear? From not really knowing about Cannabis and Hemp or just not listening to the people teaching you through testimonies and packets of info over the last few years! Wake up Hoosier law makers!

  4. If our State Government would sue for their rights to grow HEMP like Kentucky did we would not have these issues. AND for your INFORMATION many medical items are also made from HEMP. FOOD, FUEL,FIBER,TEXTILES and MEDICINE are all uses for this plant. South Bend was built on Hemp. Our states antiquated fear of cannabis is embarrassing on the world stage. We really need to lead the way rather than follow. Some day.. we will have freedom in Indiana. And I for one will continue to educate the good folks of this state to the beauty and wonder of this magnificent plant.

  5. Put aside all the marijuana concerns, we are talking about food and fiber uses here. The federal impediments to hemp cultivation are totally ridiculous. Preposterous. Biggest hemp cultivators are China and Europe. We get most of ours from Canada. Hemp is as versatile as any crop ever including corn and soy. It's good the governor laid the way for this, regrettable the buffoons in DC stand in the way. A statutory relic of the failed "war on drugs"

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