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.”


Talk to us

Please share your story tips by emailing editor@seattleweekly.com.

More in News & Comment

Screenshot from ORCA website
New ORCA system launches for regional transit across the Puget Sound

Overhaul includes new website, mobile application and digital business account manager.

Judged by XII: A King County Local Dive podcast. The hands shown here belong to Auburn Police Officer Jeffrey Nelson, who has been charged with homicide in the 2019 death of Jesse Sarey.
JUDGED BY XII (Episode 4): Foster mom wants accountability in Auburn cop’s upcoming murder trial

Special podcast series explores Auburn Police Officer Jeffrey Nelson’s role in the death of Jesse Sarey.

Diane Renee Erdmann and Bernard Ross Hansen. Photos courtesy of FBI
FBI arrests Auburn couple after 11-day manhunt

The couple was previously convicted for fraud and skipped sentencing on April 29.

Screenshot from Barnes and Noble website
Cover art of books that KSD Librarian Gavin Downing says have been under fire: “Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts),” by Lev A.C. Rosen, “If I Was Your Girl,” by Meredith Russo, and “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” by George Matthew Johnson.
Kent middle school librarian wins intellectual freedom award

Gavin Downing refused to keep ‘silence in the library’ amid attempted book banning and censorship.

t
Kent elementary school teacher accused of using racist language toward student

River Ridge Elementary instructor placed on administrative leave by Kent School District.

FILE PHOTO: King County Sheriff’s Office deputies.
Dozens of King County Sheriff’s Office employees left jobs instead of getting vaccinated

This added on to the existing number of vacancies in the department.

Joann and Allan Thomas are flanked in court by their attorneys Terrence Kellogg (fourth from the right) and John Henry Browne (far right) on May 10, 2022. Judge Richard Jones is presiding over the case. Sketch by Seattle-based artist Lois Silver
At drainage district corruption trial, it’s a tale of dueling conspiracies

Allan and Joann Thomas are in trial in Seattle on fraud charges.

King County logo
King County audit finds backlog of property tax exemption applications for seniors, people with disabilities, and disabled veterans

The auditors found that program expansions lead to three-times the amount of applications.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson (Screenshot from video press conference)
AG announces $518 million settlement from pharmaceutical companies over their role in opioid crisis

Most of the settlement money will be used to mitigate the opioid crisis in Washington.

Most Read