Thursday, April 01, 2010

Battle Brewing Over Blog Comments

The Boston Globe today has a piece (Town of Southborough considers suing annonymous online commenter) about the unfortunate situation in Southborough, Mass., where the town counsel and selectmen are threatening a lawsuit to uncover the identity of someone who posted comments on Susan Fitzgerald's blog,, under the anonymous name "Marty." The Metrowest Daily News had earlier reported this story on March 19 (Southborough selectmen mull legal action over blog comments).

Kudos to Susan, who says she has no intention to reveal Marty's true identity. To her credit, she invited Town Counsel Aldo Cipriano to contribute a post to her blog telling his side of the story. Cipriano declined.

Let's hope Southborough officials come to realize that criticism comes with the job. A lawsuit would be a waste of taxpayer dollars and would serve no good end. The only basis for such a suit would be libel and nothing about this situation would appear to warrant a libel case. And absent a strong showing of libelous harm, courts are unlikely to force a blog owner to reveal the identity of an anonymous commenter.

Susan summed up the situation well when she wrote that free speech isn't always pretty. "In any community there will be people whose opinions make your blood boil," she said. "It’s true of this town, and it’s true of this blog. But how different it would be if selectmen saw this site as a place to engage with their community instead of making it 'us versus them.'"

1 comment:

Olivia Inkster said...

In the United States, we are all naturally given constitutional rights as citizens. Of course, these days, we all are all too familiar with that of freedom of speech and the controversy that has ensued. We are allotted the right to criticize and express our opinions on all subject matters, even that of the government. In fact, this right had led to much action, progressive and repressive, throughout the years. But, it pushes the nation forward.

The introduction of the Internet has also changed the manner, methods, and ways in which First Amendment rights are expressed. It has completely added an entire new world of platforms for people who wish to be heard, journalists, want-to-be journalists, as well as everyday citizens who feel the need to speak their minds. It’s a beautiful, yet dangerous thing when people can hide behind the mask of the Internet, in which one’s identity can easily remain anonymous.

“Marty’s comments questioning the committee were his opinion and I felt there was nothing wrong with him expressing it,’’ Susan Fitzgerald said in a recent interview. “I may not agree, but I believe it is the commenter’s right to say it.’’

Despite differences in opinion, “Marty” was blatantly within his legal rights without straying into the arena of liberlous statements. It appears that his statements did not cause irrepareable harm, were based upon falsities, or were statements derived from malice. It has been determined that “actual malice” involves knowingly publishing false information or displaying a reckless disregard for the truth, as evident by Garrison v. Louisiana in regards to libel cases.

In the state of Massachusetts, in order to be libelous, a statement must be false; defamatory (i.e., discredit its subject); published with some degree of fault (negligently in the case of a private figure plaintiff and with actual malice in the case of a public official or figure);damaging to its subject.

And in Marty’s case, “Marty’s posts questioned whether certain search committee meetings held in executive session, behind closed doors, violated the state’s open meeting laws. The posts insinuated the committee had unfair partiality toward the police force’s interim chief, Jane Moran, during the search process.”

Marty was well within his legal rights to question the local government, and at no time, did he did knowingly post false information or, since these public officials, did he publish posts with malice. In making his posts, he in no way influenced others in such a way that committee members’ lives and reputations were unquestionablly damaged or ruined. The blog that he posted to was indeed an open forum, which according to the First Amendment, is completely appropriate for discussion of this nature.

The town should have absolutely no legal right to demand that Marty’s identity be revealed, considering he did not violate the law, unless they can prove that through his statements, irrepareable damaged was caused, deeming his statements false and/or malicious.

As a citizen, he deserves to express his right to express opinions on and even criticize his local government.

The Internet can be a forum for intelligent, open discussions, which only further the lines of communication, especially between the people and their representatives in government. Susan Fitzgerald even stated, “People have asked me to require full-name identities, but I wanted to give people who don’t always feel comfortable voicing their opinion in a public setting a way to be involved in the process,’’ she said. “Choosing anonymity doesn’t make their opinion any less valid.”

I think, though, we should all take a moment to appreciate the many avenues we can utilize in order to express ourselves but to also take note of the overwhelming ways in which these tools can be misconstrued, twisted, and abused.