A woman sues a daily newspaper for an anonymous comment made in the discussion forum. She also wanted the name of the anonymous commenter exposed. What happens with this case and others like it could shape the future of online forums.
It was once illegal to drive your car through Crete, Illinois. Of course, that law was enacted back when automobiles were new and the legislators felt the need to protect its citizens with such a danger. Back then, of course, new things didn't come along that often.
Today, something new comes along about every 6 seconds. The technology that seems likely to change quite a few laws these days is online communication.
A case in point: Last year, the Richmond Register (a daily newspaper in Richmond, KY) ran an article about a young woman who had been kicked out of a mall because the dress she was wearing (one she'd actually purchased at the mall) was too short. An anonymous poster in the online discussion after the article made the statement that she'd actually been kicked out because she'd exposed herself to a woman and her children.
The dress wearer filed a defamation lawsuit against the poster and subpoenaed the newspaper for the name of the anonymous poster. And the battle is on. The paper is claiming that the anonymous source is proteced under the Kentucky Reporter's Shield Law (the law that protects journalists from having to disclose confidential sources of published information). They chose this defense because a staff reporter wrote something about the lawsuit and mentioned the offending comment in his piece.
Legal experts say this kind of lawsuit can only become more common, what with web sites allowing posters almost complete freedom in what they say. Also, laws that were created during an age when the Internet didn't exist are being applied to this new medium of information. Here are a couple examples of recent lawsuits:
- The U.S. attorney's office in Las Vegas recently demanded the identities of everyone who wrote on the Review-Journal's site about a criminal tax trial in progress.
- In May, Missouri newspaper the Alton Telegraph was ordered to provide authorities with the names of two people who commented online about an ongoing murder investigation. (In that case, the judge rejected the Shield law defense, saying it did not extend to sources used by online bloggers.)
The media is taking this threat seriously. Some newspapers, including the Maui News in Hawaii, have stopped allowing readers to comment anonymously because of sexist and racist comments. Even large newspapers like The Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune have occasionally suspended online commentary when the posting became extremely inflammatory.
Here's the line that is straddled: We have the right to free speech in the U.S., but what responsibility does the "host" of such free speech bear when it becomes illegal? If a business owner can be held accountable in a sexual harrassment lawsuit filed because of the actions of one of his employees, then does a web site have to be held to the same accountability for postings to its web site?
Toni Bowers is the former Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.