Legal Issues

by Mike Masnick

Filed Under:
anonymity, new jersey, school board

School Board Tries To Force Newspapers To Reveal Anonymous Online Commenters

from the can't-take-the-heat? dept

Paul Alan Levy writes in to let us know about how a New Jersey School Board is trying to get around the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which limits what information the government can get about online speakers, in order to find out the identity of some anonymous commenters on a series of newspaper stories about teachers in the district using questionable diploma mills to get "degrees" and qualify for higher salaries.
I contacted Marc Zitomer, the School Board’s lawyer, to get his explanation for the subpoena.

His explanation was that the Board, as a body corporate, has the authority to file suit against members of the public who defame or threaten its staff.  I rather doubt that a school board could file suit for defamatory words that are not "of and concerning" the school board – the of and concerning requirement, after all, is a constitutional requirement under New York Times v. Sullivan.  Moreover, Zitomer conceded that he could not identify any cases in New Jersey where a school board had filed such an action on behalf of its staff.  When I pressed him on these issues, Zitomer claimed that an additional reason for the subpoena was that the Board could take disciplinary action against any of the bloggers who were members of its staff.  But even assuming that the criticism is a proper basis for discipline consistent with the First Amendment, the Board cannot compel the identification of bloggers on that theory without putting forward an evidentiary basis for believing that the bloggers are employees.  It remains to be seen whether Zitomer will be able to do that.

Board member William Bruno has been quoted as justifying its subpoena on the theory that "If they have nothing to hide, what's the problem?"
You always know there's something bad going on when someone busts out the "nothing to hide" line. But, once again, this seems like attempts by thin-skinned officials who can't take the heat trying to expose anonymous commenters as an intimidation technique.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 23rd, 2009 @ 5:25pm

    If William Bruno has nothing to hide, why do we not have a 24/7 webcam showing us his activities at all times?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    IANAL, Oct 23rd, 2009 @ 5:29pm


    - Does this qualify under the anti slapp laws?

    "His explanation was that the Board, as a body corporate, has the authority to file suit against members of the public who defame its staff"

    - I find this difficult to believe

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    1DandyTroll, Oct 23rd, 2009 @ 5:29pm

    The fascists always pronounce them self, by thinking they're lawfully infringing on peoples rights.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Oblig, Oct 23rd, 2009 @ 6:28pm

    If I have nothing to hide, why do you want to spy on me? Are you a pervert?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Dan, Oct 23rd, 2009 @ 6:59pm

    Who is hideing what?

    It sounds like the school board has a lot to hide and worry about. So why not examine the teachers qualifications? They are public employees and if the allegations are correct, some my not be qualified. Then the next question is just who deemed them qualified? seems like some major ass covering in play here.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    godric, Oct 24th, 2009 @ 7:19am

    Investigate all teachers

    Honestly, I think all teachers should be subject to a thorough FBI background search (every time they go to a new district and again if they display any type of questionable behavior) and have all credentials verified. I also think they should be subject to psychological evaluations and polygraph every few years. But that is just me.

    I'm of the opinion that this should be a practice for anyone that deals with children...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Daira, Oct 24th, 2009 @ 9:02am

    Re: Investigate all teachers

    I know in the State of Washington, fingerprinting is required for teachers. These are checked by both the State police and the FBI. I am guessing this is true in all states.

    Whether they school they go to provides them with a quality education - enough to teach children - is a whole different story!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. icon
    Fungo Knubb (profile), Oct 24th, 2009 @ 3:25pm

    RE: Investigate all teachers

    I believe that the states that require a fingerprint card only search for past criminal activity i.e. arrest/conviction records. The state's department of education (or whatever its called in each of the states) needs to verify each teacher's educational credentials before granting the teacher the appropriate teaching certificate for that state. That would pretty quickly cull out the diploma mill customers.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Mojo Bone, Oct 24th, 2009 @ 7:52pm

    Given that we have 'no child left behind' legislation and all teachers teach to the test and teacher salaries/promotions are based on the students'test results, why bother with diplomas at all? We can simply let the test results select the best teachers and dispense with all that unnecessary teacher education.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2009 @ 12:27am

    Always use Tor if your going to post anything that might bring down the heat on you. Let them subpoena the end point IP address of some random onion router somewhere in the world that does not maintain logs and doesn't even know the user's IP itself (by design).

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    godric, Oct 25th, 2009 @ 6:22pm

    Re: Re: Investigate all teachers

    Well... it all goes back to the same old adage... What is the difference between a teacher that got an A and a teacher that got a D?

    Nothing, they are both teachers.

    The difference with my proposal is that no-one with less than a 3.0 out of 4.0 can obtain permission to take the test to obtain a license to teach, and all of the credentials are put into a national registry along with finger prints and DNA. At the same time, another portion of the test is an extended psychological evaluation (takes about 3 days). This will help to determine a person's ability to handle the job of a teacher.

    In order to keep their license, they will have to take evals and be retested every 5 years or at the time of hire at a new school (whichever comes first). This in addition to taking classes to update their knowledge. This way they do not get stale.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2009 @ 11:46pm

    Re: Re: Re: Investigate all teachers

    And who's going to pay for all this? My taxes are high enough, thanks. But you go ahead and fund it yourself. Maybe a bake sale.

    Also, start working on that teaching degree, because no one in their right mind will go through that kind of regime for a job that starts at around 20k a year when they'll rack up 100k or more in debt just to graduate with a degree.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 26th, 2009 @ 5:04am

    Investigate all school boards!

    After all if they have nothing to hide then what would the issue be? A "concerned citizen" could start a liberties protection group and make certain that school boards across the country stop stifling free speech, wasting money, taking corruption, and start acting swiftly and quickly according to a set of iron-clad rules and standards in line with their state's constitution. How'd they like that kind of scrutiny.

    I personally really appreciate you following these kinds of articles, Mr. Masnick. It affects the freedoms of privacy and 1st amendment rights on the internet so deeply when cases like this go wrong and become precedent in that state. This gives people an opportunity to reflect some scrutiny back to these "duly incorporated school boards or entities" and really give them a wake up call that despite all their normal powers... they can't fight the citizen tired of being stepped on and crushed by bureaucracies (which is all a school board really is) when we speak out against something that these "people" hold dear and fast (like their salaries and prestige).

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    matt, Oct 26th, 2009 @ 8:43am



    -You are a teacher
    -You make a low salary
    -You can get an incrementally higher salary (not talking huge amounts here) for having a masters in education

    Do you:

    Pay big bucks and put a lot of time into a quality degree from a reputable education,


    Get a cheap, easy degree from someplace local.

    The benefits of the more expensive degree are only what you personally perceive- a broadened personal perspective, if you will. But the better degree is TOTALLY meaningless in the school system. So why would you get one?


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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