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Judge safeguards anonymous web commenters

Like a reporter's sources

A court in Montana has ruled that a newspaper does not have to reveal the identity of those who posted comments on its website. A state law that protects journalists from revealing their sources also protects a news site's user comments, the court ruled.

Montana newspaper The Billings Gazette convinced District Court Judge G Todd Baugh in Yellowstone County to quash an order that would have forced it to reveal the identity of the person or persons who posted comments on its site under the monikers "CutiePie" and "Always, wondering."

The judgment was not available to OUT-LAW at the time of writing and the only comprehensive report of the ruling to date is from the newspaper itself.

The ruling came in a case brought by Russ Doty, a former candidate for local political office, against Brad Molnar, who won the Public Service Commission election against Doty in 2004. The action accuses Molnar of libel and slander in the campaign.

Doty argued that several newspaper "commenters" would be valuable witnesses in his case and had requested information from the Gazette, which was not a party in the case. Doty thought that "CutiePie" and "Always, wondering" might be Molnar using pseudonyms, a claim that Molnar denies, according to the Gazette's report.

The judge ruled that the anonymous commenters were protected by the Montana shield law, the Media Confidentiality Act, which protects news organizations, as well as "any person connected with or employed by [a news organization] for the purpose of gathering, writing, editing, or disseminating news."

Other states, such as Florida and Illinois, allow the party seeking information to overcome this privilege by showing a pressing need for it, and its unavailability from other sources.

The Billings Gazette reports that Judge Baugh questioned the legal significance of anonymous comments. "I can't imagine an anonymous comment has much credence whatsoever," he said, according to the newspaper.

In the UK, journalists are protected from revealing their sources by the Contempt of Court Act of 1981. It provides that: "No court may require a person to disclose … the source of information contained in a publication for which he is responsible, unless it can be established to the satisfaction of the court that disclosure is necessary in the interests of justice or national security or for the prevention of disorder or crime."

In 2001, the High Court in London ruled that the Contempt of Court Act did not protect individuals who wrote anonymously on the discussion boards of finance websites Motley Fool and Investor International.

Ordering the disclosure of the identity of individuals who made anonymous, libelous comments, Mr. Justice Owen reasoned that the Act did not apply because the sites neither took responsibility for what was posted on their discussion boards nor exercised editorial control. He also believed that, in any event, disclosure was necessary "in the interests of justice."

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