SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — The Indiana Court of Appeals has overturned a lower
court’s ruling ordering The Indianapolis Star to disclose the identity of a
person who made anonymous comments on its website that a former chief
executive of Junior Achievement of Central Indiana contends were defamatory.
The ruling Tuesday sets judicial standards that former CEO Jeffrey Miller
must meet before seeking to obtain the commenter’s identity. They include
notifying the anonymous commenter through the Star’s website that the
commenter is the subject of a subpoena. Miller also must identify the exact
statements he believes are defamatory. Finally, he has to give evidence the
statements he believes are defamatory are false.
The ruling says that while the court doesn’t want “defamatory commenters to
hide behind the First Amendment protection of anonymous speech, we must
balance the prospect of too readily revealing the identity of these
Kevin Betz, Miller’s attorney, called the decision a win for his client
because Miller is going to be able to show he didn’t break any laws.
“The ruling is a victory for all individuals who want to protect their good
reputation,” he said.
Editor Dennis Ryerson said The Indianapolis Star is pleased that the appeals
court sent the case back to the lower court. He said the newspaper is still
reviewing its options.
Stephen Key, executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State
Press Association, said the ruling was the first of its kind at the
appellate level in Indiana. He said it provides a process to weed out
frivolous libelous claims from people simply looking to find out the
identities of those making anonymous comments.
“Now they have to go through a hurdle to show they have a legitimate libel
case before an anonymous poster would be required to be identified in
court,” he said.
According to the appeal, The Indianapolis Star ran an online story on March
19, 2010, about Junior Achievement facing questions about its financial
affairs, including questions about missed payments to contractors on a
building project and unaccounted for grant money. The article quoted Brian
Payne, president of the Central Indiana Community Foundation, as saying
payments from a fund to Junior Achievement wouldn’t resume until an
independent auditor could sort through what had become of $765,000 in grant
payments that Junior Achievement had already received.
On April 6, 2010, “DownWithTheColts” posted: “This is not JA’s
responsibility. They need to look at the FORMER president of JA and others
on the (Foundation) board. The “missing” money can be found in their bank
Miller, who has been president and CEO from 1994 through 2008, alleged in a
lawsuit against Junior Achievement, the Central Indiana Community
Foundation, the commenter and others that the statements about
misappropriation of funds were unfounded and “made with the knowledge that
they were false or with reckless disregard for whether they were true. The
Star was not named in the lawsuit.
Reid ordered the newspaper to turn over any documents it had about the
identity of DownWithTheColts. The Star appealed, arguing that the identity
was protected by Indiana’s shield law, the U.S. Constitution’s First
Amendment and the Indiana Constitution.
The appeals court ruled Indiana’s shield law does not protect
DownWithTheColts because he is not a reporter, editor or owner of The
Indianapolis Star and was not a source of information for the story because
the comments were posted after the story was written. Ryerson said the
newspaper still believes the Indiana shield law should protect the identity
of the commenter and is considering what step it will take next.
“We’re reviewing our options,” he said.
Nov. 29, 2011, linking all story comments to Facebook.