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Judge: Reveal who posted comment about Buffalo Grove official
By Jamie Sotonoff | Daily Herald Staff

Trustee Lisa Stone

 

Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

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Published: 10/2/2009 10:25 AM

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It's a decision that might make people think twice about what they post in online "reader comments" sections.

Cook County Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Lawrence ruled the Daily Herald and Comcast must reveal the identity of a person who posted a comment on dailyherald.com directed toward the teenage son of Buffalo Grove Village Trustee Lisa Stone.

Comcast is slated to turn the person's name over to the judge Monday, Oct. 5. Attorneys for everyone involved will then argue whether the information should be turned over to Stone.

What Stone would do with the information, if she gets it, has not yet been decided, said her attorney, Bill O'Connor. She could do nothing, or she could file a lawsuit.

The First Amendment protects anonymous free speech, but free speech online is still an emerging area of the law. Experts say it's rare for a judge to order identification of an anonymous commenter unless the need to do so is clear -- such as knowledge of a crime or a blatant threat. If the case involves defamation of character, the court typically determines first whether the defamation occurred before unveiling the source.

"You should be allowed anonymity unless you're threatening a crime or really obviously defaming someone," said Martin Redish, a Northwestern University law professor and First Amendment scholar.

In most First Amendment cases, courts tend to side with news organizations, added Jane Kirtley, a First Amendment scholar and professor at the University of Minnesota's Silha Center for Media Ethics and Law.

The Buffalo Grove police reviewed the comments made to Stone's son along with the state's attorney's office but concluded no crime had been committed.

In May, Stone filed a petition for pre-suit discovery -- a precursor to a lawsuit -- against Paddock Publications, owner of the Daily Herald. It was shortly after Stone, a first-time political candidate, won a hotly contested village trustee election in Buffalo Grove.

In a pre-election story about a questionable campaign flier that appeared online, some negative comments about Stone were posted on the "reader comments" page. Stone's son, who was a freshman in high school at the time, went online to defend his mother. As is common practice, the commenters identified themselves only by made up "user names" rather than their real names.

After some back-and-forth bickering between Stone's son and one specific poster, Stone claims the person made "defamatory and injurious statements" toward her son. The exact comments were not part of the court record. On the advice of her attorneys, Stone declined to elaborate on what was written.

Stone demanded the Daily Herald management reveal the person's identity. They refused, citing the privacy policy in its Web site's terms of service agreement, said Daily Herald attorney John Kloecker.

Stone continued her pursuit in court. The Daily Herald attorneys fought to protect the reader's privacy, but the judge ruled against the newspaper, Kloecker said.

As required, the Daily Herald turned over the person's e-mail address and all of the other identifying information it had, including the man's e-mail, age, ZIP code and Internet Protocol (IP) address.

However, the e-mail account had been deactivated. So Stone filed another petition, this time against the man's Internet service provider, Comcast, to get his name.

On Sept. 25, the judge ruled that Comcast must reveal the person's name to him. Comcast spokesman Rich Ruggiero said the company contacted the customer to notify him of the court order. He retained an attorney and filed a motion to quash Stone's subpoena. Judge Lawrence denied the motion.

"We are committed to privacy, but we're also required to comply with the law," Ruggiero said.

Spokesmen for both the Daily Herald and Comcast note that privacy is never guaranteed with its online customers, and each company's terms of service agreement acknowledges that.

"Before anyone posts anything, they should read the terms of service," Kloecker said.

Professor Redish echoed that sentiment.

"Assume a worst-case scenario," he said. "Proceed on the assumption that your identity can be revealed."