Saturday, May 07, 2011

TX Supreme Court says anonymous commenters have stake in release of identifying info

Grits admittedly has a love-hate relationship with anonymous commenters. Over the years, some of the most thoughtful things said in this blog's comment section have come from behind the veil of anonymity, but also nearly all of the most vile, garbage-level personal attacks and smears against me, the subject of blog posts, other commenters, and in too many cases even trashing co-workers, family members, or other non-combatants by name. For a time, Grits actually shut off comments altogether on TYC strings for that reason. (I don't always have time to read every comment on Grits, much less moderate them one by one, so it's pretty much an all-or-nothing deal.) Though I totally understand the decision of those who don't, I allow anonymous comments mainly because Grits gets quite a few government employees posting here anonymously who wouldn't put in their two cents otherwise. Just because I allow the practice, though, doesn't mean I'm required to respect every anonymous commenter (quite a few I don't respect at all), and I understand the frustration at cowards flinging cheap shots who would never put their names on such bilious statements.

That said, at the end of the day I find sufficient value in anonymous speech to favor its protection, so I was heartened to learn of a ruling from the Supreme Court of Texas last month quashing subpoenas to Google for the identities of two anonymous commenters, Operation Kleinwatch and Sam the Eagle, at a site called the Southeast Texas Political Review, which has a detailed page including links to filings about the lawsuit. According to the Supreme Court of Texas Blog, "The Court makes clear that, in Texas, a side agreement between the plaintiff and the party holding that information (here, Google) does not excuse the trial court from considering the objections of the person whose personal information is involved." The court didn't say the records couldn't be subpoenaed, but the person whose identifying information is being released has a dog in the fight, not just the requestor and Google.

The blog Internet Cases found it particularly noteworthy that "While many courts have evaluated this kind of question using a first amendment analysis (i.e., is the John Doe’s interest in speaking anonymously outweighed by the plaintiff’s right to seek redress), the [Texas Supreme] court in this case looked to more general concerns of avoiding litigation abuse. Citing to a law review article by Professor [Lonny] Hoffman, the court observed that there is “cause for concern about insufficient judicial attention to petitions to take presuit discovery” and that “judges should maintain an active oversight role to ensure that [such discovery is] not misused.” Don Cruse at the SCOTX Blog agreed, declaring that "Because there are so many other kinds of personal information out there in the world besides anonymous speech, the Court’s holding on this seemingly narrow procedural ground may be even more important than if it had instead based its result on First Amendment grounds."

A few years back the Bexar County probation department tried to secure identities of anonymous commenters who were employee-critics of then-probation chief Bill Fitzgerald, but if memory serves, they backed off before the issue made it up to the appellate courts. Even though I write under my own name, I definitely think anonymous commenters, and everybody else, have a stake in the release of their identifying information and am glad to see the state's high court formally recognize it.


Anonymous said...

Before 9/11 and super-duper-secret surveillance I too was "man enough" to sign my name, own-up to what I say. After becoming targeted and learning of repercussions towards dissidents in this country, well, it's just not worth it to sign my name anymore.

That said, the veil of anonymity does give me the opportunity to be less careful (braver or instigating) in what I say however.

To not have the anonymity option would truly be a loss in freedom of speech. Behind each anonymous comment is a real person.

Kenneth D. Franks said...

Anonymous comments may be fine for blogs that receive a tremendous amount of comments. Some of the most offensive comments on some of the sites and blogs I read though come from anonymous. I moderate comments but also understand the other position.

Anonymous said...

I can not post my name either because I know people in the prsion system and THEY DO RETALIATE!!!

Anonymous said...

Freedom of speech is under attack in many places. Look at Surfside Florida where the town government goes after bloggers and dissenters and anyone criticizing the horrible conduct of the town government as it goes directly in the face of its own residents and taxpayers. Everyone should look into this and help defend the American way! Town of Surfside flies waste and corruption and information control and anti-democratic principles under the radar but its starting to come out, the tip of the iceberg is showing, and the depth of the issue is still concealed and unexposed ....