The Spokesman-Review has engaged in some important and costly legal challenges in recent months that produced mixed results, but our watchdog efforts remain an integral component of the newsroom’s commitment to our audience and the community.
In one case, we lost in the effort to protect an anonymous commenter on one of our most popular online blogs, while in another case we succeeded in persuading a federal judge to unseal transcripts of the secretive query of jurors who convicted former Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. in connection with his deadly confrontation with Otto Zehm. Meanwhile, our legal counsel is helping us push for release of disciplinary records involving a few public school teachers in the region.
The case involving the anonymous comments posted on Huckleberries Online, a blog written, compiled and maintained by veteran Idaho journalist Dave Oliveria, was clearly the most complicated of the recent challenges. While a judge ordered us to provide identifying information about an anonymous commenter who had made potentially defamatory allegations, our legal team of Duane Swinton and Joel Hazel was successful in persuading the judge to reject our opponent’s request to also provide identifying information on two anonymous commenters who simply asked questions about the allegations.
There’s little disagreement in the news industry these days that the online comment sections of most news outlets are a free-for-all featuring unlimited discussions, arguments, provocative statements and, yes, insulting, obscene and frequently irrational ranting. Welcome to the brave new world of commentary on the run. Our decision to oppose the public outing, if you will, of a commenter was a no-brainer for us. We felt it was important to oppose any efforts to intimidate participants on our website or to create a chilling effect on future online conversations. In the end, the Kootenai County judge emphasized that defamatory statements are not protected by the First Amendment and ruled the plaintiff in this case needed the commenter’s identification in order to pursue a libel case. We will be monitoring the situation closely to see if the plaintiff actually pushes forward with the libel case.
In the Thompson case, we felt it was important for the community to know what transpired in the recent closed-door questioning of jurors. The case has dominated community conversation in one way or another for six years and, in our view, now is not the time for a new round of secrecy.
Few news organizations in our region can afford costly legal battles, but we continue to believe we have to carefully choose some battles that cry for intervention by us in order to serve our community. Our decision not to appeal the Kootenai County judge’s order in the online matter had little to do with financial considerations. Our legal counsel advised us that we were very unlikely to win on appeal. Swinton said that while the trial court judge applied the appropriate test for compelling the identification of a commenter, we didn’t want to risk the possibility that the Idaho Supreme Court would adopt a lesser standard that would make it more difficult for us to protect anonymous speech in the future.
The newsroom has spent more than $35,000 already this year on legal battles, and we still have some cases pending, so that figure no doubt will increase.
Our newsroom, like any business, does not have an unlimited budget, so we will be looking for ways to save in other areas in order to keep spending under control. Trust me, we’d rather be spending money on reporting and photo projects, training and equipment upgrades instead of legal fees, but it never pays to be timid when it comes to pursuing information or protecting our content.
I welcome your thoughts and suggestions on the topic, and would be happy to share them in a future column.