Protecting the anonymous

by Brian Clarey

A precedent in internet case law may be set in nearby Vance County, where a superior court judge has ordered that Jason Feingold, proprietor of the blog Home in Henderson, divulge the identities of 20 anonymous commenters.

The commenters are being sued for libel by Tommy Hester, a former Vance County commissioner who owned a rental unit featured in a post on the blog. The home was bereft of running water or electricity, and the eight elderly gentlemen who rented the place lived in incredibly unsanitary conditions, as evidenced by photos run on Home in Henderson. When it became clear Hester was the owner of the property, regular commenters on Feingold’s blog unloaded on Hester.

The principle thread of contention seems to have originated Aug 14, 2009, which elicited 185 comments. It runs the usual gamut from minutiae on county policy to wisecracks to comparisons with Nazi Germany, and some of the material appears to carry potential exposure to a libel lawsuit.

anonymity is just a means of distancing one’s self from the things one lacks the courage to say in the light of day.

Journalists are not completely unschooled in these things — though we admit deferring to the expertise of lawyers in many cases. But as journalists, it is not the letter, or even the spirit of the law that concerns us here.

Journalists use anonymity — as an exception, rather than a rule — to protect sources who might otherwise not be able or willing to go on the record. Whistleblowers, informants and other types have benefited from this special relationship, as has the general public. A judge will sometimes call upon a journalist to reveal these sources, and pretty much every time the journalist will go to jail instead of naming names. In our profession it’s considered something of an honor, actually.

The difference here is that Feingold did not directly solicit these anonymous comments, so he himself should not be prosecuted.

But on the matter of his commenters’ identities, we have little mercy.

In blogs and the online world in general, where anonymity runs rampant, the situation invites defamation because there is the illusion of zero accountability for the things we say without attaching our true names to them. But in most cases, the anonymity is just that: an illusion. Most who use the internet are identifiable through individual ISP signatures that can be traced to their sources.

And we feel that Feingold owes no loyalty to those who made accusations and insinuations on his blog against the former county commissioner and now are called to defend them.

Libel is not free speech, after all. Blog commenters are not sources. And anonymity is just a means of distancing one’s self from the things one lacks the courage to say in the light of day.

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