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Will you surrender online names? - California Newspaper Publishers Association : California Publisher

Will you surrender online names?

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Posted: Thursday, August 9, 2012 11:31 am | Updated: 11:46 am, Thu Aug 9, 2012.

From California Publisher, Winter 2008

A new breed of subpoenas is hitting newsrooms these days: subpoenas seeking the identities of anonymous bloggers who post comments on news websites. Though handling subpoenas is nothing new for most publishers, this particular subpoena trend raises unique legal issues and should prompt newsrooms to carefully consider the circumstances in which they will fight to protect information.

This summer in Oregon, Willamette Weekly and the Portland Mercury successfully fought subpoenas seeking to compel them to identify the authors of some anonymous web blog comments about a candidate for the mayor of Portland. An anonymous reader calling himself “Ronald” posted an allegedly defamatory comment about one of the candidates. The publishers argued that the information sought – the e-mail addresses and IP address of the blog comment posters – was protected by Oregon’s Media Shield Law.

Analyzing the situation, a Clackamas County circuit court judge observed that if the anonymous poster’s comments had been “totally unrelated to the blog post,” then an argument could be made that the publishers did not receive the information “in the course of gathering, receiving, or possessing information” for public consumption.

However, because Oregon’s shield law is broadly written and “is intended to protect a broad range of media activity, not simply news gathering,” the court denied access to the information.

This fall, a county grand jury hearing evidence in a murder case in Illinois issued a subpoena to The Alton Telegraph, asking the newspaper to produce “any records leading to the full identity, including name, address and IP address” of bloggers who “left messages and comments” on the newspaper’s website, identifying themselves as: john3418, purplebutterfly, mrssully, estyle and pnbcme.”

Moving to quash the subpoena using the Illinois shield law, the newspaper argued that in the “digital age a newspaper or reporter receiving information in this fashion is no different from anonymous tips provided to newspaper reporters telephonically or in written form,” the newspaper argues.

The Telegraph also insisted that law enforcement had not “exhausted all other potential avenues for the information” before issuing the subpoena arguing that subpoenas to the media should come only as a “last resort.” (As of this writing, there has been no final ruling on this legal challenge.)

A criminal defense attorney recently issued subpoenas to The Fresno Bee and local television stations when he suspected that one or more members of the jury in a murder trial had been reading or watching news accounts while on jury and blogging about their experiences. The subpoenas sought to disclose the names of the people who had read the stories or submitted blog comments. The subpoenas were successfully quashed. 

Earlier this year in California, in Krinsky v. Doe 6, the Sixth District Court of Appeal recognized the “constitutional right to publish anonymously is a longstanding tradition” while quashing a subpoena brought by a Florida corporation that hoped to identity 10 posters who wrote “scathing verbal attacks” about the company on a Yahoo! financial message board.

Applying the legal test that is emerging from other courts that have addressed this issue, the court held that the potential plaintiff in this situation must first establish a “prima facie” case of defamation in order to effectively balance the First Amendment right to speak anonymously against a plaintiff’s interest in learning who allegedly defamed them.

Collectively these situations highlight the reality that reader comments and postings to news websites are fertile sources of information and consequently are exponentially stronger magnets for subpoenas and litigation.

Today, readers can still submit letters to the editor and reporters still cultivate confidential news sources, but these traditional methods of interacting with a newsroom have been supplemented by features that invite readers (who may or may not be regular readers or paid subscribers) to use multiple ways to interact with other readers, post comments, photographs, audio and video. Readers now leave their digital footprints – their IP addresses, email addresses, search queries – and other data that can be mined – and subpoenaed – to learn valuable information about their interests and what they are reading and writing.  

The fundamental question is what information should a publisher protect? Was the reader promised confidentiality or did he just assume this protection? What if a blogger makes specific violent threats – do you protect her identity? By voluntarily turning over data to law enforcement, will readers will be concerned about the newspaper turning over their information?

While answers to these questions are being sorted out, many websites protect themselves by including language in their terms of use that gives them license to decide such issues on a case by case basis:  “Personal information may be disclosed to legal authorities if we believe in good faith that such action is necessary to comply with the law or to protect the personal safety or property of our users or the public.”  

Thomas R. Burke is a partner with Davis Wright Tremaine LLP in San Francisco. Burke has a traditional media law practice and Internet law practice. He can be reached at (415) 276-6552.