Judge orders identities of bloggers to be divulged
Posted June 29, 2010 4:23 p.m. EDT
Updated June 29, 2010 6:51 p.m. EDT
Henderson, N.C. — A Superior Court judge has ordered the editor of a local blog to divulge the names of several people who posted defamatory comments about a former Vance County commissioner.
Tommy Hester wanted to get the names of up to 20 people who made anonymous posts on the Home In Henderson website, but Judge Howard Manning ruled Monday that the other posts weren't libelous and were protected by the First Amendment.
The case stems from a news report last year in which Henderson police charged a boarding house manager after finding eight people living in unsanitary conditions.
Some Home In Henderson bloggers posted negative comments about Hester on the site after learning he owned the property. Authorities said his tenant had sublet it to the eight people without his knowledge.
Website editor Jason Feingold declined to comment Tuesday on Manning's ruling. He has 15 days to turn over the names of the bloggers to Hester and his attorney, Boyd Sturges.
"(The ruling) vindicates the idea that a person cannot say anything they want to in the cover of anonymity,” Sturges said.
Raymond Pierce, dean of the North Carolina Central University School of Law, agreed with Sturges.
"We have to remember that not all speech is protected by the Constitution," Pierce said, adding that he expects to see more blog-related lawsuits in the future.
"These sources of information are not necessarily based on the type of traditional journalism that we have seen in the history of this country," he said.
A group of state senators wanted to make it a misdemeanor to libel someone through electronic means. The bill, which never made it out of committee, would have covered e-mail, blogs and online forums, and the target of the electronic comments could request an apology and a correction.
Heather McCoy, a blogger in Orange County, said people who make statements anonymously online shouldn't be surprised that a judge would demand their real identity.
"I think that people who post on the Internet should be responsible for what they write, and I don't think there is anonymity on the Internet," McCoy said.
Orange County resident David Wilson said anonymity is needed in some cases where people could face severe consequences for speaking out.
"In countries where there's political oppression, like China perhaps, it's important that there is some modicum of anonymity," Wilson said.
Yet, his wife said that websites give bloggers cover to insult people by allowing them to post anonymously.
"You are sitting in the privacy of your own home. You can fire off whatever you want," Twyla Wilson said.
Pierce said courts will have to strike a balance between free speech and responsibility as such cases are filed.
"We don't want to chill free speech to the point where people are hesitant to comment and express themselves," he said.