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.