Judge ponders fate of mystery bloggers

Magistrate didn't set a date for decision about posters' identities

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COEUR d'ALENE - The identities of three anonymous online commenters on The Spokesman-Review newspaper's website remained just that - anonymous.

First District Court Judge John Luster on Friday didn't rule on a request to quash a subpoena that demands the newspaper and its owner release the identities of three commenters on the Huckleberries Online blog, which is administered by veteran journalist Dave Oliveria.

Local Republican leader Tina Jacobson wants the names because she said one of them defamed her by suggesting she stole money from the local party, while the other two commenters are what she considers witnesses to the offense. She wants to confront her accuser.

Luster heard arguments from Jacobson's attorney and the newspaper's on whether her demand should be rejected. Luster didn't set a date for his decision.

Jacobson's attorney, Matthew Andersen, said the Huckleberries commenter who goes by "almostinnocentbystander" posted statements on the blog that accused Jacobson of stealing $10,000 from the party. The commenter's posts on Feb. 14 - while Jacobson still chaired the Kootenai County Republican Party Central Committee - were later taken down by Oliveria.

The other two commenters go by the names "Phaedrus" and "OutofStaterTater."

Jacobson also has filed a lawsuit against "almostinnocent," who made the comments in question below a picture of Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who was standing on a stage in Coeur d'Alene, with Jacobson sitting in the background. She is not suing the newspaper.

Whoever "almostinnocent" is, she or he posted the comment, "Is that the missing $10,000 from Kootenai County Central Committee funds actually stuffed inside Tina's blouse??? Let's not try to find out."

A couple hours later, "almostinnocent" chimed in again, saying Jacobson "is not allowing the treasurer report to go into the minutes (which seems common practice)."

He or she added, "a whole Boat load of money is missing and Tina won't let anyone see the books. Doesn't she make her living as a bookkeeper? Did you just see where Idaho is high on the list for embezzlement? Not that any of that is related or anything..."

In an unusual start to the hearing Friday, Andersen "paged" the three commenters, asking them to step forward if they were sitting in the courtroom. Then he asked a bailiff to do the same in the hallway. Not surprisingly, nobody came forward.

Andersen told the court the right to free speech has never allowed someone to defame another person.

"I'm entitled to follow the trail" that leads to the identities, Andersen said. With that information, he hopes to prove damage was done to Jacobson's reputation.

Following the hearing, Andersen said, "Nobody wants to be called a thief or an embezzler, especially when it's money that's trust money."

He wants the question of whether she was defamed to be decided by a jury.

Jacobson declined to comment after the hearing.

The Spokesman-Review's attorney, Duane Swinton, told the court, "The right to speak anonymously is protected by the First Amendment."

He said revealing the identities of the commenters would undercut the free flow of information on the newspaper's website.

He said the comments in question in this case were opinion.

In an affidavit filed with the court, Oliveria wrote, "The purpose of the Huckleberries blog is to stimulate conversation, discussion and opinions by individuals concerning issues of national, local and regional importance in North Idaho."

He also wrote, "In my experience, if identities of posters were publicly disclosed, this would inhibit the free flow of information and discussion on the blog and would discourage people from posting comments on the blog, the end result being that discussion and expression of opinions on matters of public importance would dwindle, or perhaps dry up completely."

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