Forcing The Spokesman-Review to reveal the identities of three anonymous commenters on its Huckleberries Online blog would quell free speech by raising fears that people posting critical remarks would be outed and sued, the newspaper’s attorney argued Friday in court.
“It’s an issue of huge concern to The Spokesman-Review. If people are going to be outed on that site … it will lose its effectiveness” as a news forum about matters of importance in North Idaho, said the company’s attorney, Duane Swinton, of Witherspoon Kelley.
The Spokesman-Review asked an Idaho district court judge to quash a subpoena filed by Kootenai County Republican chairwoman Tina Jacobson seeking the identities of three Huckleberries Online readers who commented anonymously about her.
Jacobson’s attorney, C. Matthew Andersen, of Winston & Cashatt, argued that Jacobson’s reputation was hurt by the remarks, and she needed the commenters’ identities to pursue a defamation lawsuit.
District Court Judge John Luster made no decision Friday, saying he required time to consider the matter.
In late April, Jacobson filed a lawsuit against “John and/or Jane Doe” after an anonymous reader posted a comment on Huckleberries Online questioning whether $10,000 allegedly missing from the Kootenai County Central Committee might be “stuffed inside Tina’s blouse.” Two other anonymous readers posted follow-up comments.
“You can’t call someone a thief and expect to get away with it,” Andersen said in court Friday.
The statement by a commenter using the name “almostinnocentbystander” subjected Jacobson to ridicule, spurred rumors and may hurt her future job prospects as a bookkeeper, he said.
Andersen said that he needs almostinnocentbystander’s identity “to have a party to sue.” The identities of two other commenters, “Phaedrus” and “outofstatetater,” who responded to the online remark, are important because they were witnesses to the alleged defamation, he said.
“I am entitled to have them to help determine the damage that Ms. Jacobson has suffered,” he said.
The anonymous postings on Huckleberries Online occurred Feb. 14 under a photograph of GOP presidential contender Rick Santorum’s visit to Coeur d’Alene. A number of local officials, including Jacobson, were visible in the picture.
The Santorum photo produced a freewheeling online discussion about politics, including derogatory remarks about the candidate’s jeans and a sweater vest and the attire of others in the photo, Swinton said. The comment about Jacobson “wasn’t nice,” but it wasn’t necessarily defamatory, he said. Blog sites are where people express opinions, sometimes airing outrageous views, he said.
“I don’t think that anybody can say that almostinnocentbystander intended that as a statement of fact,” Swinton said. “It was a comment on (Jacobson’s) appearance.”
Andersen disagreed. Other commenters immediately asked for more details, and almostinnocentbystander posted a second remark referencing the Kootenai County Republicans’ funds, he said. Later commenters speculated on whether there was any truth to the remark.
The remarks about Jacobson were deleted from Huckleberries Online after S-R blogger Dave Oliveria discovered them, but the first posting was online for about 2 ½ hours, according to court testimony.
Jacobson is seeking damages of at least $10,000 from almostinnocentbystander in an amount to be determined at a jury trial. The lawsuit also asks the judge to issue an order barring that individual from making libelous statements against Jacobson in the future.