Chesterton Tribune

No shield for anonymous libel on the Web, state appeals court rules

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TOM COYNE,

Associated Press

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — The Indiana Court of Appeals has overturned a lower court’s ruling ordering The Indianapolis Star to disclose the identity of a person who made anonymous comments on its website that a former chief executive of Junior Achievement of Central Indiana contends were defamatory.

The ruling Tuesday sets judicial standards that former CEO Jeffrey Miller must meet before seeking to obtain the commenter’s identity. They include notifying the anonymous commenter through the Star’s website that the commenter is the subject of a subpoena. Miller also must identify the exact statements he believes are defamatory. Finally, he has to give evidence the statements he believes are defamatory are false.

The ruling says that while the court doesn’t want “defamatory commenters to hide behind the First Amendment protection of anonymous speech, we must balance the prospect of too readily revealing the identity of these anonymous commenters.”

Kevin Betz, Miller’s attorney, called the decision a win for his client because Miller is going to be able to show he didn’t break any laws.

“The ruling is a victory for all individuals who want to protect their good reputation,” he said.

Editor Dennis Ryerson said The Indianapolis Star is pleased that the appeals court sent the case back to the lower court. He said the newspaper is still reviewing its options.

Stephen Key, executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association, said the ruling was the first of its kind at the appellate level in Indiana. He said it provides a process to weed out frivolous libelous claims from people simply looking to find out the identities of those making anonymous comments.

“Now they have to go through a hurdle to show they have a legitimate libel case before an anonymous poster would be required to be identified in court,” he said.

According to the appeal, The Indianapolis Star ran an online story on March 19, 2010, about Junior Achievement facing questions about its financial affairs, including questions about missed payments to contractors on a building project and unaccounted for grant money. The article quoted Brian Payne, president of the Central Indiana Community Foundation, as saying payments from a fund to Junior Achievement wouldn’t resume until an independent auditor could sort through what had become of $765,000 in grant payments that Junior Achievement had already received.

On April 6, 2010, “DownWithTheColts” posted: “This is not JA’s responsibility. They need to look at the FORMER president of JA and others on the (Foundation) board. The “missing” money can be found in their bank accounts.”

Miller, who has been president and CEO from 1994 through 2008, alleged in a lawsuit against Junior Achievement, the Central Indiana Community Foundation, the commenter and others that the statements about misappropriation of funds were unfounded and “made with the knowledge that they were false or with reckless disregard for whether they were true. The Star was not named in the lawsuit.

Reid ordered the newspaper to turn over any documents it had about the identity of DownWithTheColts. The Star appealed, arguing that the identity was protected by Indiana’s shield law, the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment and the Indiana Constitution.

The appeals court ruled Indiana’s shield law does not protect DownWithTheColts because he 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. Ryerson said the newspaper still believes the Indiana shield law should protect the identity of the commenter and is considering what step it will take next.

“We’re reviewing our options,” he said.

The appeals court noted The Indianapolis Star changed its privacy policy on Nov. 29, 2011, linking all story comments to Facebook.

 

 

Posted 2/22/2012