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Shield Law No Protection For Anonymous Poster

The identity of a person who commented anonymously about an article already published on newspaper website is not protected by Indiana’s Shield Law, the state’s appellate court found.

The poster’s identity was sought by a former president of the Junior Achievement of Central Indiana, Inc., (JA) who alleged that he was defamed by the comment appearing on The Indianapolis Star’s (The Star) website under an article about an audit of the non-profit organization.  The JA’s former president attempted to obtain the name of the anonymous poster by serving a subpoena on The Star, which refused to comply with the subpoena.  He then filed a motion to compel.  The trial court ordered The Star to provide the name of the poster and The Star appealed, arguing that Indiana’s Shield Law that protects from disclosure the “source of any information” obtained in the course of a person’s employment or representation of a newspaper.

The appellate court rejected The Star’s argument, finding the Shield Law did not apply because the newspaper did not use the anonymous post as part of its newsgathering.  In fact, the court said, the comment did not appear until after the news article was published.  “Importantly, there is no evidence that The Star used this anonymous post in any way to further investigate and report on its initial story,” the appellate court wrote.  “The Star merely provided a place for ‘DownWithTheColts’ to place his comment similar to if The Star had placed a bulletin board outside its office building for anyone to tack an announcement.  For this reason alone, we determine that the anonymous commenter was not a source as envisioned by our Shield Law.”

The appellate court further found that the poster could not qualify under the Shield Law because he or she was not employed by nor did he or she represent the newspaper. The Shield Law, the court said, required that the information “flow through the press” to assure that “the information is reliable because it is sifted through and scrutinized by professional journalists. . . No such evaluation of the information from ‘DownWithTheColts’ was done here by any reporter, editor, or owner of The Star.  As a result, there is no protection provide by our Shield Statute.”

Even though the appellate court found the poster’s identity was not protected by the Shield Law, the court did not order the release of the name.  The court found that before the name would be turned over, the plaintiff must show that the statement is defamatory under a summary judgment standard and that the need for disclosure must be weighed under a balancing of interests standard.

In Re Indiana Newspapers Inc. dba The Indianapolis Star, Jeffrey M. Miller et al. v. Junior AchievementIndiana Appellate Court No. 49A02-1103-PL234, filed February 21, 2012.