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Anonymous bloggers protected by shield law, judge finds

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials
A group of anonymous commenters on a Montana newspaper Web site can stay that way thanks to a Montana District…

A group of anonymous commenters on a Montana newspaper Web site can stay that way thanks to a Montana District Court judge’s ruling Wednesday.

Judge Todd Baugh granted the Billings Gazette’s motion to quash a subpoena issued by a former candidate for local public office, the newspaper reported. The candidate, Russ Doty, had brought a libel suit against his opponent, Brad Molnar, in the 2004 election for the Billings Public Service Commission. In the course of the lawsuit, Doty issued a subpoena to the Gazette, which wasn’t a party in the case, seeking the identity of two people who had posted comments about Doty anonymously on the newspaper’s Web site.

Specifically, Doty sought the identity of two bloggers, going by the monikers "CutiePie" and "Always wondering," whom Doty thought might be Molnar in disguise, the Gazzette’s attorney Martha Sheehy said. Doty also argued that even if they were not Molnar, the bloggers would be helpful witnesses to prove the extent of his reputation damage.

The subpoena also requested "all electronic information. . . including but not limited to IP addresses, e-mail addresses, and other identity and contact information" for Molnar, the Gazette reported.

In granting the newspaper’s motion to quash the subpoena, the judge found that the anonymous bloggers were protected by the Montana shield law, known as the Media Confidentiality Act. The law protects news organizations, as well as “any person connected with or employed by [a news organization] for the purpose of gathering, writing, editing, or disseminating news.”

Though the law does not explicitly include bloggers or online commenters within its protection, the judge agreed with the Gazette that online commenters are sufficiently connected to the newspaper to warrant protection.

This was the first case dealing with anonymous bloggers in Montana that Sheehy knew of, she said.  She was pleased with the victory, but not surprised: the shield law there is broad, she pointed out, so it protects not just anonymous sources, but also any information gathered or obtained by news organizations.

"There are similarities between old and new technology," Sheehy said. "If a person’s speech is anonymous in the printed newspaper, the statute protects it. This is anonymous speech in a different form."