Online Commenters Exposed in the Northwest

A ruling in Idaho has trolls scrambling for cover.

When last heard from, Idaho Republican leader Tina Jacobson was attempting to force Spokane's daily newspaper, The Spokesman-Review, to reveal the name of an anonymous commenter who had suggested Jacobson had $10,000 in stolen funds stuffed in her blouse. Given the paper's First Amendment protections, the success of the lawsuit seemed doubtful. But Jacobson not only bested The Spokesman-Review in court, leaving newspapers rethinking their comment rules; the mystery commenter, having unmasked herself, now admits the theft claim was only rumor.

Jacobson, chair of the Kootenai County GOP Central Committee, felt she was defamed by the Feb. 14 comment to a breezy blog called Huckleberries Online, written for The S-R by Idaho-based writer Dave Oliveria. The topic was presidential candidate Rick Santorum's visit to Coeur d'Alene. As often happens in comment sections, readers strayed off-subject, exchanging views on political funding—leading to this entry from someone signing in as "almostinnocentbystander": "Is that the missing $10,000 from Kootenai County Central Committee funds actually stuffed inside Tina's blouse??? Let's not try to find out."

In her lawsuit, Jacobson asked the court to make the newspaper cough up the commenter's identity. The S-R resisted. "It's an issue of huge concern to The Spokesman-Review," said the paper's attorney, Duane Swinton. "If people are going to be outed on that site . . . it will lose its effectiveness" as a news forum for North Idaho. Idaho District Court Judge John Patrick Luster wasn't persuaded. Three weeks ago, he ordered the paper to reveal the commenter's name and any correspondence between the commenter and the newspaper.

Idaho doesn't have a reporter's-shield law to protect sources, and even if it did, Luster said, in his view Oliveria was not acting as a journalist. Oliveria, who removed the comment a few hours after it was posted, was merely the "facilitator of commentary and administrator of the blog." Protections thus didn't apply to the paper, nor to the commenter, said the judge. "While the individuals are entitled to the right of anonymous free speech, this right is clearly limited when abused," Luster wrote.

The newspaper says it doesn't plan to appeal the ruling, which appears to have eroded the freedom assumed by legions of faceless commenters. It has yet to reveal almostinnocentbystander's name in court, but that's academic now: The S-R disclosed it in a news story last week when the commenter outed herself: She's Linda Cook, onetime aide to late Idaho Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage.

Cook heard about the alleged missing money from another GOP official, she said. "At the time that I said it, I was convinced that it was not false, and it certainly wasn't said with malice."

 
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