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Mar 3 - Run a Website that Allows People to Post Anonymously? Post Anonymously?

Indiana Supreme Court Decision has Wide-Ranging Implication for Both Sides of the Web Equation

By Lou Phelps, SBJ Staff

March 3, 2011 – If your business, organization or media company allows people to post anonymously on your website, take note of a potentially far-reaching decision this week by the Indiana Supreme Court.

The Indianapolis Business Journal, Indianapolis Star and WRTV Indianapolis have all been required by the courts to turn over the IP address (internet protocol address) of anonymous email posters to their sites as part of civil lawsuit by a local resident.  So far, the business journal has complied.

The legal actions were begun by that city’s former CEO of Junior Achievement of Central Indiana, Jeffrey Miller, who is seeking to identify people who have publicly criticized him through postings on area websites, using an anonymous screen name.  

It was is one of a handful of rulings about whether media outlets can be forced to provide the names of their bloggers and posters nationally, and is the first in Indiana, according to Kevin Betz, an attorney for Miller, in an interview this week by the Indianapolis Star.

Miller and his wife are suing Jennifer Burk, the current chief executive of Junior Achievement of Central Indiana, and Brian Payne, president of Central Indiana Community Foundation, as well as both of their organizations. The Star's complete story is available at: http://www.indystar.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2011110301006.

Greg Morris, president and publisher of IBJ Media, Inc. complied and turned over the IP addresses last July, after spending $26,000 in legal fees to resist a court order to do so.  He was represented by Bingham, McHale, LLC. of Indianapolis.

IBJ first got legal notice in April 2010 about the postings by an individual, and told was that, “We needed to take it down immediately. And, we didn’t do that,” Morris explained. 

They then received “a subpoena that we needed to turn over identifies of the people who posted comments that were offensive. We really don’t have very good information about them, but we did have IP addresses,” he states.  

“We resisted that subpoena, and our attorney filed a motion to quash it in July,” but they were unsuccessful, and decided they had to make a sound financial decision. “We concluded that these were not sources for a news story (more clearly protected by First Amendment,) and it could have been over six figures to defend this further," Morris says. 

The court has ordered the Indianapolis Star and the WRTV to comply with the IP address request, as well.  

“I still feel good about it,” - about the company’s decision, says Morris, even with all the publicity now coming out with other media going through the same legal process. “These people who are commenting, they need to be responsible. They are people hiding behind anonymous names. They’re responsible for their actions and their words. And, we didn’t just willingly hand it over, we were ordered to turn it over."  

IBJ Media, Inc. has taken two steps to change the way in which it communicates with people  who post comments: they are validating email addresses, and are finalizing very clear language that explains that the poster is legally responsible for their written works. IBJ does not require posters to register or provide any information on who they are, at this time.  

And, he thinks the case is a major decision that may go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, both people who post to websites behind the perceived 'shield' of an anonymous user name, and the companies and organizations that operate blogs and forums with anonymous usernames, need to understand that their identities may not be protected, as well as the full gamut and implications of potential liability lawsuits of this decision.

 

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