Spokane newspaper seeks to protect anonymous comments

COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho — A lawyer for a newspaper website argued Friday that people should be allowed to post anonymous comments on its blogs without fear of being identified and then sued.

But a Republican political leader in northern Idaho, who is seeking the identities of three individuals who commented anonymously about her, argued that she was libeled by a comment and has the right to sue for damages.

District Judge John Luster in Coeur D’Alene said he would rule later on whether a subpoena sought by Kootenai County Republican Central Committee Chairwoman Tina Jacobson against The Spokesman-Review newspaper should be quashed.

Jacobson is seeking the identities of three commenters, including one who suggested in a posting that she might have stolen money from the GOP.

“We’re here for the rights of people to speak anonymously on the Internet,” said Duane Swinton, attorney for The Spokesman-Review, based in nearby Spokane. “We’re here as an advocate for First Amendment rights.”

The newspaper has refused to turn over information about the commenters in a libel lawsuit Jacobson filed in April.

Jacobson is not suing the newspaper. Instead, she is suing a commenter who posts under the name “almostinnocentbystander,” saying that handle was used to post false statements about her handling of local GOP funds.

Jacobson alleges that the newspaper is withholding the commenter’s identity.

Attorney Matthew Andersen, representing Jacobson, said his client has the right to confront her accuser in court but cannot do so unless the newspaper releases the identity.

“In Idaho, being called a thief is a per se libelous statement,” Andersen said. “She has been called a thief.”

Andersen opened the hearing by asking if any of the anonymous bloggers were in the courtroom and wanted to come forward. No one did.

According to the lawsuit, the commenter called “almostinnocentbystander” stated on the newspaper’s website that Jacobson had $10,000 that was missing from the Republican Central Committee.

The statement posted Feb. 14 prompted inquiries from two other commenters, who go by the online handles “Phaedrus” and “OutofStatertater.” They questioned the substance of the claim. Jacobson’s subpoena also seeks their identities as witnesses in the case.

The original commenter, “almostinnocentbystander,” responded to the others “with further allegations of missing funds, obstruction of the Republican Party Central Committee treasurer’s report and embezzlement,” the lawsuit said.

The comments were posted on the newspaper’s blog, Huckleberries Online, and were removed shortly after by the blog’s administrator, who noted that the comment regarding the missing funds was an “unsubstantiated accusation made against a local Republican official,” according to court documents.

Jacobson is seeking damages of at least $10,000 from “almostinnocentbystander.” The lawsuit also asks a judge to issue a court order barring that individual from committing future acts of libel against Jacobson.

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