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Online opinions can lead to legal tests
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Online commenting. Facebook. Blogging, Social media.

With the world of cyber communication growing at a dizzying pace, so too are the opportunities for those sitting behind keyboards or holding tablets to share what's on their minds.

The vast majority of online postings proffered as commentary, critique or simply status updates are harmless and benign, but occasionally there are those, such as some of local interest related to the operations of the Newton County School System, that someone feels are defamatory in nature and which result in civil litigation.

"We don't know how many (result in litigation), and to the best of my knowledge, no one else does either," said Sandra Brown, executive director of the Media Law Resource Center. The center is a national nonprofit group that works with media in a variety of ways, one of which is providing updates and tracking services for litigation filed against bloggers.

"Anecdotally, the numbers are increasing. We do believe complaints based on online speech are rising, which you would expect since the amount of online speech has grown astonishingly," Brown said. "There is no way of knowing how many. Complaints are filed in thousands of courts and there is no single data base."

The question of whether certain online posts were defamatory or libelous is at the core of the lawsuit filed by Alcovy High School Principal LaQuanda Carpenter against school board member Jeff Meadors.

In such a case, there are two crucial issues: whether a posting in question is actually defamatory, and who actually made the post.

Ironically, what is believed to be the first U.S. case in which a blogger lost a libel suit based on online postings was in Georgia. In 2006, David Milum of Forsyth County was ordered to pay $50,000 to a local attorney. On his blog site, Milum had accused the attorney of bribing judges on behalf of drug dealers; the court found there was no evidence to support the claim.

A self-proclaimed political activist and a prolific poster of online comments, Milum earlier this year lost another lawsuit, with $30,000 being awarded to a former member of the county's planning commission because of online postings made by Milum. A third suit by yet another plaintiff is still pending against Milum.

In Milum's case, however, he posted comments under his own name, on a blogging site he controlled. The identity of the person making the post in that case was not in question.

There is still a lot of unchartered water in the sea of online litigation over comments posted by individuals.

"Few have gone to trial, and there's no way to track the resolution of those that have," said Brown.

"A fair number of cases are won by defendants, largely because the content is found to be vituperation, opinion, comment that is not [presented as] fact. It goes to the basic tenet of libel law that the plaintiff has to prove that a statement of fact is published and that it is false.

"So much of what one sees online isn't factual; it's people venting. That's one of the primary reasons - the basis on which defendants win, but there are no numbers to back it up," Brown said.

In tracking online litigation, the MLRC makes a distinction between bloggers, who generally are responsible for the content they post on sites they control personally, and those who comment on sites maintained by others, which normally have some sort of moderator.

The online postings at question in the Carpenter lawsuit were offered as commentaries on stories at the Newton Citizen website, a moderated site not controlled by those who post there.

Like The Covington News, the Newton Citizen allows those commenting on its stories to do so using screen names that do not necessarily identify the person making the post.
When the Carpenter lawsuit was initially filed in April, it did not name Meadors as a defendant, but rather listed 11 anonymous "John Doe" defendants. A motion asking the court to force the Newton Citizen to reveal the identity of the bloggers was denied by the judge.

Though declining to comment for this story, the Citizen had argued that Georgia's "shield law," written to allow newspapers to protect their news sources, also applied to the identities of members of its online community. The court agreed, though the judge did suggest the issue could be revisited later if attempts to find the identities through other avenues failed.

While identification of the source of online commenting is crucial to such a case, it may not always be easy to do. Though many websites require registration in order to comment, the process often needs nothing more than a viable email address.

Online postings do show an IP (Internet protocol) address, but that address may only lead back to a service provider, such as Comcast or AT&T, which may then require a court order to provide information about a specific customer. And an IP address ultimately may only take you to a specific computer, not necessarily the person who used it.

After it was filed, the Carpenter lawsuit was amended to remove the anonymous bloggers as defendants, listing Meadors instead. Stephanie Lindsey, attorney for Carpenter, said last week she was confident that they could prove in court that Meadors either personally posted information damaging to her client or provided that information to others and encouraged them to post it.

The News reached out to both Meadors and his attorney Jeffrey Foster this past week. In a Friday email Foster said, "We will have no comment about this litigation nor will we participate in interviews while this case is pending."

Meadors and Foster, on Meadors' behalf, have in the past denied any involvement in the online postings cited in the litigation.

Since the filing of the lawsuit in April, postings about Carpenter, her husband deputy school superintendent Dennis Carpenter and others in the school system have continued, increasing in volume and spreading to other social media such as Facebook.