Friday, July 2, 2010

Judge Orders Online Editor to ID Six Anonymous Bloggers in Libel Case

Seal of Vance County, North CarolinaImage via Wikipedia
In a six-page Order on a Motion to Quash Subpoena, Vance County (N.C.) Superior Court Judge Howard E. Manning Jr. has ordered an online news editor to produce within 15 days the identities of six pseudonymous posters whose comments have prompted a defamation lawsuit by a Vance County Commissioner up for reelection.

The lawsuit, Thomas S. Hester Jr. v. Jane or John Doe a/k/a "Beautiful Dreamer," and/or "Confused," "Fatboy" et al. (Case No. 10-CVS-361), is based on allegedly defamatory comments  following an article that appeared on on Aug. 14, 2009. The article, entitled "Arrest Made in Elder Abuse Case," was written by website Editor Jason A. Feingold and concerned Esther Thompson, a tenant of a Henderson, N.C.,  property owned by plaintiff Hester, who allegedly sublet the premises to eight elderly tenants who purportedly were living in squalid conditions.

Although Hester allegedly was unaware of the sublet arrangement, comments by anonymous bloggers following the article questioned Hester's degree of culpability and criticized his involvement in the matter.  Hester subpoenaed Feingold to produce the names of the pseudonymous posters whom he alleged had defamed him, and the editor sought to quash the subpoena on First Amendment grounds.

Balancing the First Amendment rights of the bloggers against those of Hester to pursue his defamation claim, Judge Manning refused to quash the subpoena. The judge ruled that the subpoena was issued in good faith, and sought relevant information material to Hester's defamation claims that was unavailable elsewhere.  Courts in other jurisdictions have employed a more rigorous standard to decide the issue of whether to identify anonymous bloggers.

Since Judge Manning's Order, one of the six bloggers, who posted as "Pointkeeper," has identified himself on a radio talk show as being Robert D. Gupton, who claimed that he subsists on Social Security benefits and expressed a willingness to meet with Hester.  The plaintiff is seeking re-election to the County Commission. Feingold has contacted the other anonymous bloggers regarding Judge Manning's Order.

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1 comment:

  1. The continuing frequency of defamation suits against online pseudonymous and anonymous posters makes me wonder about the plaintiffs' objective. Are they seeking 'justice'? Money? Revenge? Unless the issue or persons involved are high profile, any victory could be Pyrrhic and known only to those involved. Personal reputation in today's world seems a much more fluid and devalued entity than in years past, much less worthy of the time, expense and questionable outcome of a libel suit.

    The current judicial haste in ordering disclosure of pseudonymous or anonymous posters is deeply disturbing to me, and I wonder if an unspoken, historical, entrenched authority struggle isn't at play or is, at least, a subtle influencing factor.