Indiana Court Says Anonymous Commenters Deserve High Standard Before Being Exposed, But Aren't Necessarily Protected By Shield Laws

from the seems-reasonable dept

A few months ago, we wrote about a case in Indiana involving an attempt to unmask an anonymous commenter on a newspaper website who effectively accused someone of embezzlement. There were a few legal questions involved in the case, and the one we had focused on involved the newspaper itself trying to protect that commenter under Indiana Journalism shield laws. At the time, we'd argued that the shield law should probably be limited to cases where the individuals actually were acting as a source... and that basic First Amendment case law could handle the anonymity question outside of the shield law.

It looks like the court effectively agreed with just about everything we said. The court rejected the shield law argument, but not in a broad way saying that commenters aren't protected under the shield, but that this comment wasn't really a "source" in any meaningful way, and the newspaper didn't use the comment as the basis for any additional reporting. However, the court pretty clearly suggests that in other cases, commenters could be considered sources and could be protected by shield laws.

However, perhaps more importantly, the court set a relatively high bar for unveiling the anonymous commenter -- adopting the Dendrite rules that give the anonymous person a chance to respond and which require the plaintiff to present a significant amount of evidence that the comments violate the law before any unmasking is ordered. While the Dendrite rule still is not standard, it is spreading, and it's nice to see Indiana adopt it as well.
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Filed Under: anonymous speech, commenters, dendrite rules, indiana, journalism, shield laws

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  1. icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 27 Feb 2012 @ 8:12am


    Because it is currently very easy for people/corporations who have power and money to file lawsuits to unmask anonymous commentators on baseless claims. There have been plenty covered here, where it is more important to find out who was mean to you rather than have an actual action to sue for.

    If the standard to unmask started above, they hurt my feelings as being the basis for a lawsuit then we'd not need the rules.
    But various courts have ruled in various ways creating this amazing patchwork of findings where offending someone with a truthful statement is the basis for a lawsuit. They have no intention of actually winning the case, they just want the name so they can take their own actions against people.

    Search TechDirt for "Liskula Cohen".
    Random blogger called her a skank, and comedy ensued.
    Didn't have to prove there was loss of work, a Judge felt it was defamatory, despite the fact there were next to no visits to the site. Then there was a 3 million lawsuit for hurt feelings, that was on again, off again... and her lawyers statement that he had no idea that this lawsuit might show his client in a bad light.

    Thinking someone is a skank is personal opinion, should the merits of this be debated in a lawsuit?

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