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Supreme Court vacates transfer in Star commenter case

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The Indianapolis Star has signaled an intent to comply with a court order to identify an anonymous online commenter whose remarks about a former Junior Achievement leader are part of a defamation lawsuit, according to an attorney representing the former executive.

The disclosure came days after the Indiana Supreme Court chose not to further review long-running litigation involving whether the newspaper must reveal the identity of the online commenter. The court’s decision to vacate transfer came one day after justices heard oral arguments.

Jan Carroll Carroll

Former Junior Achievement of Indiana CEO Jeffrey Miller 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 Junior Achievement. Miller sued the The Star after it refused to provide identifying information about an anonymous online commenter he claims made comments that constitute defamation.

The Supreme Court issued an order Sept. 27 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.

Attorney Kevin Betz of Betz+Blevins represents Miller and said on Oct. 4 that The Star had responded to a letter seeking enforcement of the court order. Betz said The Star indicated in its response it was “working to comply” with the order. Betz+Blevins threatened to seek a contempt order against the newspaper if it didn’t comply with the court order.

Betz said the newspaper had provided some non-digital information, but he said, “We’re still waiting for full compliance from The Star as to the digital information, the electronic information that was ordered by the court and has gone through the appellate system twice.”

Attorneys for The Star did not respond to messages seeking comment, but after the court’s ruling, Barnes & Thornburg LLP partner Mark J. Crandley 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.”

Barnes & Thornburg attorney Jan Carroll made The Star’s case during oral arguments 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 about Miller 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 the comment.  

Betz argued to the Supreme Court 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.”

Betz said in an interview the delay in identifying the commenter has “made it far more difficult to put all the pieces together in this defamation action that has alleged improper activity between many of the defendants, and that claim has survived summary judgment for several of the defendants.”

Betz said Miller’s defamation case is scheduled for trial Jan. 14, 2014, before Marion Superior Judge Michael Keele, who granted the order requiring The Star to identify DownWithTheColts.

Going forward, anonymous online comments will be less of a factor for The Star, which has since modified the comments section of its website so that users must now use a Facebook login.•

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  1. I wonder if the USSR had electronic voting machines that changed the ballot after it was cast? Oh well, at least we have a free media serving as vicious watchdog and exposing all of the rot in the system! (Insert rimshot)

  2. Jose, you are assuming those in power do not wish to be totalitarian. My experience has convinced me otherwise. Constitutionalists are nearly as rare as hens teeth among the powerbrokers "managing" us for The Glorious State. Oh, and your point is dead on, el correcta mundo. Keep the Founders’ (1791 & 1851) vision alive, my friend, even if most all others, and especially the ruling junta, chase only power and money (i.e. mammon)

  3. Hypocrisy in high places, absolute immunity handed out like Halloween treats (it is the stuff of which tyranny is made) and the belief that government agents are above the constitutions and cannot be held responsible for mere citizen is killing, perhaps has killed, The Republic. And yet those same power drunk statists just reel on down the hallway toward bureaucratic fascism.

  4. Well, I agree with you that the people need to wake up and see what our judges and politicians have done to our rights and freedoms. This DNA loophole in the statute of limitations is clearly unconstitutional. Why should dna evidence be treated different than video tape evidence for example. So if you commit a crime and they catch you on tape or if you confess or leave prints behind: they only have five years to bring their case. However, if dna identifies someone they can still bring a case even fifty-years later. where is the common sense and reason. Members of congress are corrupt fools. They should all be kicked out of office and replaced by people who respect the constitution.

  5. If the AG could pick and choose which state statutes he defended from Constitutional challenge, wouldn't that make him more powerful than the Guv and General Assembly? In other words, the AG should have no choice in defending laws. He should defend all of them. If its a bad law, blame the General Assembly who presumably passed it with a majority (not the government lawyer). Also, why has there been no write up on the actual legislators who passed the law defining marriage? For all the fuss Democrats have made, it would be interesting to know if some Democrats voted in favor of it (or if some Republican's voted against it). Have a nice day.

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