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Death threats spur release of web commenter's identity

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials
The Knoxville News Sentinel reported today that it complied with a federal grand jury subpoena for information about a single…

The Knoxville News Sentinel reported today that it complied with a federal grand jury subpoena for information about a single user comment on its Web site.

The FBI requested the information as part of an investigation into reported death threats made against defense attorneys for the alleged ringleader of a January 2007 carjacking and double murder of a young local couple. Though the U.S. Attorney’s office asked the newspaper to keep the information secret, editors posted a story on the Web detailing the expanded death-threat investigation and explaining to readers its decision to comply with the subpoena.

Jack Lail, director of news innovation for the paper’s Web site,, said editors consulted with corporate counsel and determined the narrow nature of the request made it doubtful the paper would successfully defend the confidentiality in court.

“This was a narrowly defined request for information about a single comment, and we felt that they were not on a fishing expedition,” Lail said. “They had a specific comment they were seeking information about.”

News Sentinel staff removed the comment in question from the Web within ten minutes of its Sept. 8 posting due to an editor’s decision that its content did not comply with the site’s user guidelines.

“We’re operating under the rules as we understand them, and that would be that the comments are the responsibility of the commenter,” Lail said. “If they had asked for the notes of the reporter or something involved with the reporters, that would be different.”

Lail said the News Sentinel rarely receives subpoenas for information related to online comments. The handover was only the second time in 15 years that the newspaper complied with a subpoena for commenter information. The other instance, which occurred several years ago, was related to a Secret Service investigation of alleged death threats to then-President George W. Bush.

Other newspapers around the country have been subpoenaed this year for information about anonymous comments. In June, the Las Vegas Review-Journal resisted an attempt by federal prosecutors to gain information about more than 100 comments posted on a story about a federal tax evasion trial. But the paper later complied when prosecutors narrowed the subpoena to two specific comments.

Some newspapers resisted subpoenas, arguing their state shield laws protect the identities of online commenters. In May, the Alton Telegraph argued that Illinois law protected the identities of five online commenters against a subpoena in a murder investigation. But the judge ordered the release of information related to the two comments deemed potentially useful to the investigation.

Judges in Montana and Oregon have held those states’ shield laws protect the identities of online commenters. Both of those cases involved civil, not criminal, actions.

News organizations are still working out what policies to set about anonymous online comments, Lail said.

“We’re trying to be prudent about what we do, and at this point I’m not so concerned about the legal questions as much as the effects that comments have, particularly negative or abusive comments have on the ability of other people to comment,” he said. “Sometimes I think the tenor and tone of the comments forces out reasonable debate.”