(indystar.com) A Marion County judge has ruled, for the first time in Indiana, that news media outlets can be ordered by the court to reveal identifying information about posters to their online forums.
In rulings this week and last week, Marion Superior Court Judge S.K. Reid became the first judge in Indiana to rule on whether the state journalism shield law protects media outlets from being forced to disclose names of anonymous posters on their websites or other identifying information about those posters, said Kevin Betz, an attorney for Jeffrey Miller, former chief executive of Junior Achievement of Central Indiana.
The rulings came in a defamation lawsuit Miller filed last year. He is seeking to broaden the list of defendants in his case to include people who criticized him anonymously last year on websites run by The Indianapolis Star, Indianapolis Business Journal and WRTV (Channel 6).
The case is among a growing number of defamation claims nationally that target anonymous Internet posters to websites operated by news media and other owners.
"We are seeing more and more defamation lawsuits being filed, that's clear," said David Hudson, a First Amendment scholar at the First Amendment Center, affiliated with Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. Hudson said the public should be concerned if anonymous comments on public websites begin drying up because of the fear of lawsuits. "If this happens, then people will be less likely to comment" on public issues, he said.
All three Indianapolis media outlets fought the subpoenas served on them to turn over identifying information about posters to their sites.
The judge ruled that The Star and IBJ must turn over the identifying information, which typically tells a poster's Internet protocol address or Internet provider. Using that, an attorney can subpoena the Internet provider for the poster's real name.
The Star had fought the disclosure, saying in its 15-page motion that the shield law protects it from being forced to disclose names of anonymous posters on its IndyStar.com website, as does the Constitution and its guarantees of freedom of speech.
"Our practice is not to reveal the names" of people who post anonymously on The Star's website, said Star Editor and Vice President Dennis Ryerson. "We've long had a practice of protecting sources at all levels."
Ryerson wouldn't comment on the judge's ruling, except to say, "We now are reviewing our legal options."
The judge's ruling on whether WRTV also must turn over information about its posters is expected this week.
The IBJ has already turned over the information Miller sought, Betz said.
The posters identified include Kelsey Hanlon, described as a former staffer at Junior Achievement; James Leagre, who is called a friend of Junior Achievement's current chief executive; and Dave Wilson, vice president of corporate sponsorship for the 500 Festival Associates.
500 Festival Associates also was added as a defendant in the defamation claim, on the grounds that the defamatory comments supposedly traced to Wilson were sent on one of its computers.
Miller, whose wife, Cynthia, is a co-plaintiff in the case, initially sued Jennifer Burk, who is the current chief executive of Junior Achievement of Central Indiana; Brian Payne, who is president of Central Indiana Community Foundation; and both of their organizations.
The amended complaint adds as many as nine other people. They are listed in the lawsuit as "John Does."
Betz said he doesn't see the judge's recent rulings as weakening the state's shield law, which gives broad protections to news reporters from having to disclose names of sources who provide information used in news stories.
"This is not an assault on the shield law," Betz said. "In fact, it is well within the bounds of the traditional terms of the shield law. I don't think the media should be interested . . . in protecting the identities of cyberbullies. I don't think these people are advancing any cause of democracy or purposeful free speech.
"All it is is cyberbullying. And these kind of individuals need to understand there is accountability for that kind of behavior.