Online “Anonymous” Comments Entered in Court

Aaron Flint posted on September 22, 2010 05:05 :: 1066 Views

Very interesting article by Molly Priddy in The Flathead Beacon.   The “comment” sections of the various media outlet web stories are known for degenerating into negative, personally charged debates, but they are also known for containing some of the juiciest tidbits of information. 

But what if all these folks who thought they were commenting “anonymously” suddenly found that their comments were now being made public, and better yet- you will now be expected to testify in court regarding your once thought “anonymous” claims.  That was certainly the case for some Flathead Valley residents who commented on a Daily Inter Lake news story and have now been forced to testify in court.

Sam Dickson, a Flathead County deputy sheriff, was one of them. He told the court at the Sept. 15 hearing that he found the case accusing Evergreen teenager Justine Winter of double homicide upsetting. So he typed his feelings under a nickname on the Daily Inter Lake’s website. It was cathartic, he told Winter’s defense attorney, David Stufft.

“I don’t have any other hobbies,” Dickson said. “I blog, that’s how I vent. I think that’s why everybody blogs, because they can do it in secrecy.”

“And you learned it doesn’t work that way,” Stufft said.

“Yes,” Dickson answered.

Priddy added that this appears to be the first time, in Montana, that online comments made their way into a real-world courtroom.  Her column also raises the question as to why the Inter Lake did not invoke Shields Law protections for commenters on their website, while invoking the law for members of the newspaper staff.  

A commenter, however, cannot invoke the shield law on his or her own, according to Clem Work, a media law professor at the University of Montana’s School of Journalism, who said the news organization would have to do it for them.

A media outlet is not required to resist subpoenas, Work noted, though he said he was unsure why the Inter Lake would choose not to use the shield law available in Montana.   

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