When last heard from, Idaho Republican leader Tina Jacobson was attempting to force Spokane's daily newspaper to reveal the name of an anonymous commenter who suggested Jacobson had $10,000 in stolen funds stuffed in her blouse. Given the paper's First Amendment protections, 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.
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.
The same commenter later added:
A whole boat load of money is missing and Tina won't let anyone see the books. Doesn't she make her living as a bookkeeper? Did you just see where Idaho is high on the list for embezzlement? Not that any of that is related or anything...
In her lawsuit, Jacobson said the entry stated "that the missing funds were hidden on the person of Mrs. Jacobson. The blog statement of missing funds was false. The blog statement that the missing funds were secreted on Mrs. Jacobson was false."
She 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, Oliveria was not acting as a journalist, in the judge's view. 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, the judge said (though he did turn down Jacobson's request for the names of two other commenters). "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. As Seattle-based Los Angeles Times reporter Kim Murphy wrote after Luster's ruling:
When entering the comment forum of your typical news website or blog these days, it sometimes seems like a good idea to wear a helmet. Well-crafted insult? Barbed bombast? Bring it on. Often cloaked in the anonymous protection of screen names, readers feel free to unload on one another, and at the world in general, with impunity. But that protection may be an illusion.
The Spokane paper 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, a former congressional aide and long-time Republican campaign worker.
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," said Cook, a onetime aide to late Idaho Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage.
GOP leader Jacobson is now mulling her next legal step, and appears to have put the kibosh on the theft rumor. She also has newspapers rethinking the value of allowing free-form anonymous comments.
"The idea that the newspaper has to spend time and treasure defending this nonsense -- not protecting a whistleblower, not battling the government for access to public records -- is repulsive," writes the Spokesman's Shawn Vestal. Adds Idaho Statesman editorial page editor Kevin Richert," If Luster's ruling prods newspapers to rethink online commenting, that may prove to be a blessing in disguise."
Both writers drew lots of comments - all of them apparently anonymous.