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N.C. judge orders blog to disclose anonymous commenters

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  1. Libel and Privacy
A North Carolina judge has ordered an online-news editor to produce the names of six anonymous posters who allegedly posted…

A North Carolina judge has ordered an online-news editor to produce the names of six anonymous posters who allegedly posted defamatory comments on his website, although one of them identified himself this morning on a local AM radio station.

Former Vance County commissioner Thomas S. Hester Jr. subpoenaed "Home in Henderson" editor Jason A. Feingold demanding the identities of individuals who posted allegedly defamatory statements under monikers such as "Fatboy" and "Confused."

The dispute began when Feingold reported that eight people occupying a local house owned by Hester included elderly individuals living in squalor. A tenant of Hester’s had apparently sublet the premises without his knowledge, but the blog comments speculated as to the degree of his culpability and were highly critical of Hester’s involvement.

Superior Court Judge Howard Manning on June 28 found in favor of Hester, who is up for re-election as a Vance County commission member. This morning, one of the commenters, Robert D. Gupton, who posted as “Point Keeper,” identified himself on the Henderson, N.C., radio show.

“I am not a wealthy person and my wife and I live on social security income,” Gupton said. “I hereby request if Mr. Hester wants to face his accusers that he contact me to arrange a meeting.”

Feingold’s attorney, C. Amanda Martin of Everett, Gaskins, Hancock & Stevens, had previously argued for the judge to quash the subpoena. Martin said Hester’s decision to sue the commenters for libel was somewhat puzzling if he wanted to set the record straight about whether he knew of the poor conditions on his property.

Unlike a letter to the editor published in a hard copy of a newspaper, the public at large has an immediate avenue to respond if something inappropriate is posted on a website,” Martin said. “The most effective way to get that inaccuracy corrected would be to respond on that website.”

The court stated in the June 28 order that it balanced the anonymous posters’ First Amendment rights to free speech against Hester’s basic case for defamation and found that the subpoena should not be quashed.

In its order, the court reasoned that because the subpoena was issued in good faith, the names were relevant and material to the core claims of defamation, and they were unavailable from any other source. There is no uniform standard across United States courts for revealing anonymous Internet posters, but the standard used in this case is on the less stringent side of the spectrum.

Feingold has contacted the rest of the commenters and has 15 days to reveal the names, but Martin said what will happen after that is uncertain.

Former anonymous commenter Gupton said on the Henderson radio program that “I have said these are my opinions, and yours may be different. Let us hope we do not lose the freedom to express ourselves on blogs like Home in Henderson.”