The anonymous bloggers will be allowed to remain so for now, according to a ruling by Newton County Superior Court Judge Eugene Benton, who also ordered Stephanie Lindsey, attorney for Alcovy High School Principal LaQuanda Carpenter, to notify the bloggers of the lawsuit.
For more then two hours, Lindsey and attorney for The Newton Citizen, David Hudson, argued their cases in a motion to quash the subpoena to release the IP addresses of the anonymous bloggers. The motions are a result of a defamation lawsuit filed in April by Carpenter against some anonymous bloggers on the Citizen's website, all of whom made comments about Carpenter and her performance as principal at AHS. The lawsuit was later amended to remove three of the original pseudonyms and then to add one person, Newton County Board of Education District 1 representative Jeff Meadors. The lawsuit requested that the Citizen release all identifying information about the bloggers, including IP addresses and any email correspondence. It also requested a deposition (on-the-record, sit-down meeting) with Citizen Editor Alice Queen.
The motion hearing began with Hudson, who argued first that the Georgia Shield Law is an established body of law that states anonymous speech is entitled to full protection. Additionally, in Georgia there has not been an appellate decision on when a newspaper must reveal anonymous sources on a blog or website.
After going through each of the cited complaints that Lindsey said were defamatory, Hudson said he believed only two of them would allow for that charge, the rest falling under opinion and commentary, neither of which is actionable under the law.
In the amended motion which added Meadors as a defendant, the suit claims that Meadors either made, or gave information to others who then made, the comments on the website. Hudson's argument was that since Lindsey said she knew Meadors was behind a large portion of the comments, there was no need for the paper to provide any information. Lindsey pointed out that her amended motion had the word "or" in it, meaning that Meadors could be involved or not.
Self-confessed blogger Shannon Black, who has admitted to being KBeet and MsLoy, was in the courtroom, and shook her head vehemently every time Lindsey alleged Meadors had urged her or provided her with information to post in the form of comments.
The attorneys argued for a bit about an evidentiary hearing, with Lindsey saying that one was necessary so that she could question board of education members (who were in court), Superintendent Gary Mathews and Black.
Lindsey argued the law in the state of Georgia was new, but there were several cases in other states, all of which had evidentiary hearings in which the reporter had to come to court and answer questions about the anonymous sources. However, Hudson said that no cases under the Georgia Shield statute require evidentiary hearings and objected to Queen taking the stand and being questioned by Lindsey.
"They have got to try," Hudson said. "They have to do depositions and discovery... this is the clearest case you will ever see... she says she knows where to get this information. She's alleged in her complaint that she knows where the sources are, and until she exhausts those, it would be premature for her to question Alice Queen."
"The purpose for having an evidentiary hearing is to demonstrate what evidence is there..." argued Lindsey. "...The court has to weigh those individuals' rights to be anonymous versus my client's rights to fight these attacks on her reputation."
The two lawyers also agreed that Lindsey had not notified the anonymous bloggers, which would have allowed them the opportunity to file a motion, to show up in court or to be represented by an attorney, who if hired could still keep their identities anonymous. Lindsey said the Citizen did that for her, since they have posted stories regarding the motions.
"The Newton Citizen has done that. Dendrite (Superior Court case, Dendrite International, Inc. v. Does) says the plaintiff must undertake efforts to notify anonymous posters... it says that before you even filed your complaint, you should have filed notice somewhere, somehow," Benton corrected. "...I think that it is very important that we deal with that first... that doesn't end the process, that just starts the process."
She further argued that some of the bloggers named had actually made mention of the lawsuit in more blogs on the Citizen website.
"I don't understand for the life of me why we are fighting the inevitable," she said. "Everybody's eager to get the truth out."
She added that this was also not a case where the Shield Law would apply, since it was not a case of a reporter protecting confidential sources, which is the only time that would apply. "These are not individuals that had any involvement in the news process, so they don't have privilege... the First Amendment protects anonymous bloggers, but it's not an absolute right," she concluded.
Lindsey then attempted to get Benton to at least release the IP addresses for Black, who was in the courtroom, since she had admitted to being at least two posters, though in her amended motion, Lindsey stated she was dubious if those blogger names were actually Black.
In the end, Benton ruled that Lindsey had failed to correctly notify the anonymous bloggers and that she needed to do so, suggesting that she post subpoenas on the internet or in a notice in the newspaper, giving the bloggers 30 days to answer the complaint. He also advised that an evidentiary hearing could be held if all potential witnesses had sat through a deposition prior to the court date with the Citizen being allowed to sit in, as well as Black and Meadors.
Both attorneys were also asked to submit a proposed order, essentially a formal report to the judge, in the matter and he will take it under consideration, and Benton said Lindsey needed to "show the court efforts" of why she could not obtain the information on the bloggers by means other than the Citizen. He also found that, for the purposes of this first hearing, the Shield Law did apply.
Another hearing will be scheduled for the coming months.