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Decision By Vegas Newspaper to ID Commenters Prompts ACLU Intervention

Posted Jun 18, 2009 1:31 PM CDT
By Molly McDonough

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After first making a sweeping request asking for the identities of all commenters on an online Las Vegas Review-Journal story, prosecutors have narrowed their request.

The U.S. attorney's office now is only seeking the identities of individuals responsible for two comments that the government considers threatening to jurors, the Review-Journal reports.

And while the newspaper plans to comply with this more focused subpoena, the American Civil Liberties Union isn't happy that the newspaper is relenting.

On Tuesday, the ACLU of Nevada filed a motion on behalf of three anonymous commenters to quash the subpoena. "The right to speak anonymously about politics is older than the Constitution," said ACLU staff attorney Margaret McLetchie, who was referring to the Federalist and anti-Federalist papers, which were famously published by writers using pseudonyms.

At issue are comments, numbering more than 200, on a Review-Journal story about the trial of Robert Kahre and three others on trial for charges of tax evasion, fraud and conspiracy.

One comment refers to jurors as "12 dummies" who "should be hung" if they convict Kahre. The other wagered Star Trek money, "quatloos," to bet that one of the prosecutors on the case wouldn't reach his next birthday, the newspaper reports. The latter comment has already been removed because it reportedly violated the Journal-Review's comment policy, which states in relevant part that the paper reserves the right to reveal commenter's information in responses to legal action.

Ars Technica's Law & Disorder blog notes that whether to protect anonymous comments is a "very contentious issue."

The blog provides a summary of relatively recent court action, noting the following:

• In 2008, a California appeals court ruled anonymous trolls on the Internet are allowed to remain anonymous, no matter how scathing their comments may be.

• This year, a Maryland appeals court overturned a ruling that would have unveiled the identity of three anonymous Internet commenters.

• A Texas court ordered an online news site to unveil identifying details about hundreds of anonymous commenters.


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