Anonymous Web commenters win court protection

Rest assured, dear readers, your anonymous comments will remain anonymous. In a precedent-setting case last week, a district court judge ruled that the Billings Gazette, in Montana, did not have to disclose the identities of its online commenters. The judge found that the state law that protects reporters from revealing their sources also protects the newspaper from disclosing the names of those who comment beneath online stories.

The commenters’ identities were sought by Russ Doty, a failed 2004 candidate for the Public Service Commission, who claimed that his opponent and victor in the election, Brad Molnar, slandered him through online comments on the Gazette’s Web site using names like “CutiePie” and “Always, wondering.”

Molnar denied using those names to slam Doty on the Gazette’s Web site. But even if he did, the paper won’t have to disclose it.

In the court hearing, Judge G. Todd Baugh did a little slamming of his own when he pooh-poohed the impact that anonymous commenters have on the public discourse.

“I can’t imagine an anonymous comment has much credence whatsoever,” he said.

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Naomi Zeveloff

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