State high court extends media protection to mortgage website

Cristina Abello | Reporter's Privilege | Quicklink | May 6, 2010

The New Hampshire Supreme Court on Thursday reaffirmed that a website covering the mortgage industry has the same First Amendment protections as traditional media.

The case --The Mortgage Specialists v. Implode Explode Heavy Industries -- began after Implode-O-Meter, a website covering the mortgage industry, published a story that said the state banking authority was investigating lender The Mortgage Specialists. The story linked to a state document detailing the investigation that was obtained from a confidential source.

The Mortgage Specialists asked the court to order Implode-O-Meter to remove the document and a comment made by someone under the screen name Brianbattersby, arguing that New Hampshire Banking Department reports are confidential and the comment was defamatory.

The trial court issued an injunction that prohibited the website from posting the information and ordered it to disclosure the source of the information and the identity of an anonymous commenter — all actions with which the state supreme court disagreed.

“The fact that Implode operates a website makes it no less a member of the press . . . . Implode’s website serves an informative function and contributes to the flow of information to the public,” the opinion read.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Citizen Media Law Projects filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case urging the court to protect the confidential source’s identity.

The court extended its reasoning to apply to both the anonymous poster and the confidential source by adopting a balancing test that weighed the plaintiff’s interests against the anonymous speaker’s interests.

“We hold that the qualified privilege to speak anonymously requires the trial court to 'balanc[e] . . . the equities and rights at issue,' thus ensuring that a plaintiff alleging defamation has a valid reason for piercing the speaker’s anonymity,” the opinion read.

The state Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s order prohibiting republication of the loan information and remanded the other issues to the lower court for rulings consistent with its new opinion.