Court orders compelling some U.S. papers to “out” anonymous commenters

Responding to a court order, a newspaper in Redding, Calif., will release contact information for an anonymous commenter on its website who may have witnessed a crime.

The Record Searchlight reports that attorneys for a man accused of attempted murder after a 2011 shootout with police have subpoenaed the commenter’s information.

The commenter posted to a Record Searchlight story a comment that indicated they had witnessed the incident, the circumstances of which are being disputed by the defense, who say police opened fire after one officer accidentally shot out the window of his own vehicle.

An attorney for the paper said this is the first time the newspaper has received a court order demanding a commenter’s personal information, and the paper said it has notified the commenter that their information will be released in case that person wants to make an argument to the court against it.

Record Searchlight editor Silas Lyons said:

“We don’t take that responsibility lightly. However, we have decided to comply with the court order because we believe it’s what we’re required to do in this situation.”

Last week, the Hawaii Tribune-Herald was also compelled by a subpoena to turn over identifying information for five anonymous commenters — a sixth commenter is challenging the subpoena.

As you can imagine, this is not the first time a newspaper has been asked to hand over the names of anonymous commenters.

Back in July, the Memphis Commercial Appeal faced a similar situation. A subpoena filed on behalf of the Shelby County Commission demanded the names, addresses and phone numbers from commenters on 45 articles about the county’s public schools reorganization.

Commissioners claimed the purpose of the subpoena was not to “out” the commenters who posted discriminatory comments but to prove that new state laws intended racial discrimination.

In November, a federal district judge rejected the subpoena. Judge Samuel Mays, writing that “the information sought by the Commission is not relevant to the underlying issue to be decided and is not an appropriate subject of discovery in this case.”

A columnist at a sister paper called the subpoena an attempt to squash free speech.

A year ago, I held forth, at length, on why the Chronicle allows anonymous comments, and nothing has changed in the past year about that philosophy.

I get asked on a fairly regular basis about the commenters on the website, by reporters and even by members of the public who call in upset over comments.

If there is a compelling journalistic reason to get in touch with a commenter, I will provide a reporter with whatever contact information is present on the commenter’s account. I do not give out identifying information about commenters to people who call the newsroom on the phone.

So far as I know, the Chronicle hasn’t been asked to reveal identifying information for our online commenters. But that day is probably inevitable.

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Michael Becker

Michael Becker is the Web Editor of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. He has been a blogger and professional journalist since 2005, covering subjects ranging from nonprofits and crime to engineering and technology.