Free to criticize - Coeur d'Alene Press: Editorial

Free to criticize

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Posted: Wednesday, May 16, 2012 12:15 am

As many news-gathering entities do, the Spokesman-Review allows readers not just to comment on published articles and blogs, but to do so without revealing to the public their identity. The S-R now faces a June 1 hearing before 1st District Judge John Luster because a string of comments upset Kootenai County GOP Central Committee Chair Tina Jacobson enough for her to sue the paper, demanding the identity of three anonymous commenters.

Once upon a time, when comments were relegated to good old-fashioned newsprint as signed letters to the editor, fairly well-established libel laws applied. Letter writers have for more than two centuries enjoyed First Amendment protections even if they wrote something about a public figure that was untrue. Our Founding Fathers were so convinced that criticism of leaders was such an integral element of maintaining a free society that they wanted to ensure great leeway for those expressing inaccurate and even damaging opinions.

Jacobson is demanding the identity of one or more people she believes have accused her of a crime. Of particular displeasure to the county's Republican Party leader was this question, posed on Dave Oliveria's "Huckleberries" blog after Oliveria posted a photo that included Jacobson on a stage with other Republicans: "Is that the missing $10,000 in Kootenai County Central Committee funds actually stuffed inside Tina's blouse??? Let's not try to find out."

The Spokesman-Review's attorneys argue that the comment doesn't constitute a factual assertion that Jacobson stole any money - or even that any money had gone missing. But even if it did, our question is this: How damaging is an anonymous opinion stated on a blog that makes no claim to the information being accurate or even substantially true? If someone had spray-painted the same thing on a downtown wall, would Jacobson sue the building's owner? Because what's happened here is very much like graffiti; the comment may be eye-catching but it lacks credibility because nobody is owning up to it.

Many online newspapers and other information gatherers have adopted non-newsprint rules that in some ways reflect a society very similar to the one Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and others encountered. In the earliest days of American journalism, these men and others frequently wrote under pen names to protect their identity while pursuing a cause. In fact, some of our nation's most important documents, the Federalist Papers, were penned by Hamilton, Madison and John Jay writing under the pseudonym "Publius."

Editors then and now recognize that the shortcomings of allowing opinions to be published anonymously, even when scathing or inaccurate, can be outweighed by the benefit they might carry in bringing important information or perspectives to light. In the case of Oliveria and the Spokesman-Review, the paper is further protecting its commenters' anonymity because its written policy suggests it will do so.

"In my opinion, anonymity for posters on the Huckleberries blog is critical," Oliveria writes in an affidavit, "because it allows individuals to openly express their opinions and comments about national, regional and local issues without fear of repercussion or retaliation concerning the same."

Repercussion or retaliation is the ultimate aim of the Republican leader or the suit would not have been brought. We pay little heed to anonymous comments because they lack credibility, but by protecting the anonymity of those who would criticize a public official, even unfairly or inaccurately, the courts would in fact be upholding freedom of speech and of the press.

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  • manman posted at 2:11 am on Wed, Jul 25, 2012.

    manman Posts: 46

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  • bionic man posted at 7:03 pm on Thu, May 24, 2012.

    bionic man Posts: 347

    The SR by DO has a one sided Check the facts if you're interested and take some time to investigate.

    And " NO " I will not supply you with any it what you want, but unless you checkit out for yourself, ignorance is no excuse. It is what it is, and facts don't lie.

  • milburnschmidt posted at 11:43 am on Sat, May 19, 2012.

    milburnschmidt Posts: 1160

    Obviously tina cant stand the heat in the kitchen. Poor thing she must be one of those women who are perpetually offended by life. To have a tongue in cheek question cause so much grief shows the poor leadership we have in both parties and our government. Get ahold of yourself tina(toungue in cheek) and take the questions and criticism instead of looking for a lawyer to gaurantee you a unoffended life instead of looking to rain down retaliation on anyone who would question your character or motives. Your reaction is more in the style of Nancy Pelosi than a conservative republican. Just another example why many of us are disgusted with both parties.

  • Always Curious posted at 4:00 pm on Thu, May 17, 2012.

    Always Curious Posts: 498

    subponea .. fat fingers.

  • Always Curious posted at 3:59 pm on Thu, May 17, 2012.

    Always Curious Posts: 498

    The press commentors are much more diverse and open than those on the S-R blog. Sometimes that strays into personalities offended and insults shared. Not much different than political discussions face to face really.

    You guys think this is a rough board try some of the sports ones.

    If you are thinned-skinned you really shouldn't be involved in online commentary forums. There are always trolls around.

    So what happens when/if it goes to a deadend? A free email account used to register with S-R, ISP blocked by routing through an anonymizer. good luck taking that suponea overseas.

  • inclined posted at 7:43 pm on Wed, May 16, 2012.

    inclined Posts: 681

    There must be still, the distinction between even severe criticism, accusation and libel. If someone is going to participate, it must be understood, there are legally defined consequences.

  • Jeffrey Wherley posted at 1:42 pm on Wed, May 16, 2012.

    Jeffrey Wherley Posts: 3969

    Flash Gordon,

    She will only lose, if she lets the narrative that this editorial hold. On this single comment alone there is no case, but on the mass of them, she can show damage to her private business. Which is outside of the public free speech realm.

    Saying someone steals taxpayers money every time they vote is protected.
    Saying someones Business steals money is not protected.

    This has the potential to be a supreme court case, I hope there is enough money behind it to push it to it's limits and end the routine of today s society of not thinking they have any personal responsibility for there actions.

  • Flash Gordon posted at 12:27 pm on Wed, May 16, 2012.

    Flash Gordon Posts: 1484

    It is way more ugly over here. Commentators on this blog site are free to slander anyone they choose to. She's going to lose her legal challenge, by the way.

  • justinian posted at 12:17 pm on Wed, May 16, 2012.

    justinian Posts: 318

    Wait a sec Mike, would you have allowed those comments in a letter to the editor? Signed or anonymous? Really?

  • JonnyQPubic posted at 10:30 am on Wed, May 16, 2012.

    JonnyQPubic Posts: 325

    DeNiles hit a homerun with that post, other than the fact that numerous posters here are angry mudslingers with questionable "facts". My question would be, if Oliveria runs such a manipulative site, why would anyone post anything there. He's the reason I haven't picked up an S-R for 20 years.

  • Jeffrey Wherley posted at 10:29 am on Wed, May 16, 2012.

    Jeffrey Wherley Posts: 3969

    It was not just that single statement but the followup statements that questioned her Bookkeeping Business ethics and the link to Kootenai County Embezzlement cases that had nothing to do with her. If I was a client of her bookkeeping business and heard those accusations I would be slow to recommend her business until I knew for sure. Ethical reputation and word of mouth are the 2 biggest effects on Financial related businesses.

    The founding Fathers were worried about stifling speech and it's effect on government, but they were also aware the with speech comes responsibility. Anonymous speech about Government and public figures is one thing, but when it attacks the persons personal life and ability to prosper it crosses a line.

    I can say "Is that the missing $10,000 in Kootenai County Central Committee funds actually stuffed inside Tina's blouse??? Let's not try to find out." with only crossing the line of Stupidity But when it is connected to further attacks outside the public arena into her private business and implying a connection to embezzlement, that is not protected speech.

  • Why Not posted at 10:18 am on Wed, May 16, 2012.

    Why Not Posts: 5018

    “Our question is this: How damaging is an anonymous opinion stated on a blog that makes no claim to the information being accurate or even substantially true?”

    In many respects online message boards are a lot like “Tagging” and Ms J is whining a lot about nothing. Her treatment was relatively benign when compared to the shots taken by other public figures. If you are going to swim with sharks expect to get bitten.

    Good post CHSdad, Hucks is more entertainment whereas the Press tries to be impartial and news worthy. So according to Niles Hucks is bad and Chuckleberries is good I guess. Actually it’s all about entertainment for people like us.

  • CHSdad posted at 9:49 am on Wed, May 16, 2012.

    CHSdad Posts: 380

    Wow, LTRLTR, typical comments by multiple contributors here include:
    You must be a commie if you don't agree with me
    Go back to California
    The council are corrupt
    You're just a hater.

    It's way more ugly over here!

  • LTRLTR posted at 9:37 am on Wed, May 16, 2012.

    LTRLTR Posts: 1171

    Wow DeNiles! Your comments are on target! It's ugly over there!

  • DeNiles posted at 9:06 am on Wed, May 16, 2012.

    DeNiles Posts: 2450

    There is a particular problem with Huckleberries Online. It is more than a -freedom of speech- blog or freewheeling interactive newspaper website. That is because its moderator(s) actively directs and works the commentary and those commenting with what seems to be a particular agenda in mind. It is essentially a community based and professionally operated propaganda website. Particular comments are actively encouraged and sometimes baited. Contrary commentary is derided by the moderator (DFO) and the same moderator encourages adversarial treatment by his allied contributors of targeted individuals. So HBO is a political tool actively seeking to influence this area and its readership. It has impact. It is intended to have impact. Because of this ALL of the commentary on HBO, by any contributor, carries weight worthy of legal consequences.

    In contrast the CdA Press website is moderated only for civil content, not political thrust and impact. Commentary here too often wades into the absurd and any out of bounds comments are clearly those of the individual (anonymous or otherwise) who offered them. Threads here are not purposefully driven and directed as with HBO. As such the thread content does not carry as much community influence or, IMHO, liability.

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