Lawyers step in where angels fear to tread: Another online post prompts legal action (UPDATED) | Blogh

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Lawyers step in where angels fear to tread: Another online post prompts legal action (UPDATED)

Posted By on Wed, Mar 10, 2010 at 10:33 AM

In the latest sign of an emerging trend, the Pittsburgh Media Scoops and Gossip site has apparently been served with a subpoeana to provide information that could identify an anonymous commenter. The site has publicly notified the commenter of the subpoena, and given him/her 30 days to respond. 

The subpoeana comes as part of a lawsuit being filed by a former employee of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Karen Roebuck.

Roebuck alleges that she was "seperated from her employment" at the paper while on sick leave more than a year ago -- and that her departure became the subject of libelous commentary on the site. Roebuck's attorney, John Newborg, is seeking to identify one of the posters who commented on Roebuck's departure, as part of a libel suit.

The thread in question can be found here. From what I can tell, the posts at issue have been removed, but they are featured in a motion filed for the case. The poster -- who commented under the pseudonym "none" -- accused Roebuck of abusing the paper's sick leave policy. Earlier posters had decried the departure of Roebuck and another staffer; this poster asserted that "The folks in question were abusing the system. They certainly were not losses, and the newsroom is better off for their departure."

Roebuck's lawsuit seems to assume that the anonymous posts were made by a Tribune-Review employee. She is filing suit against the Trib and the "John Doe" who posted the remarks.

I make no representation about the merits of this case, and in its own legal filing, the Trib gripes that Roebuck waited nearly a year before commencing legal action. It asserts that the paper has no connection with the Web site, and no way of knowing who posted the comments. Even if the poster was a Tribune-Review employee, the paper argues, he or she would not have been acting at the behest of the company or its supervisors. 

In any case, though, these developments represents another example of a trend I've noted before: people filing suit on the basis of comments made on Web sites.

Under the federal Communications Decency Act, a blogger or online chatroom cannot be sued over what other people post there. (City Paper, for example, can't be held liable for what other people post in the comments section of our Web site.) But the host of a site can be required to furnish IP address and other information to help identify the commenters. That's the request Roebuck is making here.

And so far, the Roebuck case seems to be following a pattern established in earlier cases. The Web site is publicly notifying the author of the subpoeana, and giving the author 30 days to respond with a motion to quash it.

But at least two things make this case unusual right from the start. First, it's a journalist undertaking the lawsuit -- usually our tribe is on the other end of libel actions.

Second, the Media Scoops and Gossip forum is a site that has given local journos plenty of cause to grit their teeth, or roll their eyes. Anonymous commenters there routinely take shots at local newspapers: Tribune-Review staffers are routinely derided as "Trib-Kiddies" doing the bidding of publisher Richard Mellon Scaife, while favorite Post-Gazette targets include TV critic Rob Owen, columnist Samantha Bennett and editor David Shribman. (I've taken a drubbing or two over there myself.) Some reporters, like the P-G's Dennis Roddy, have occasionally been moved to post replies -- responses that have generally also been met with derision. 

From what I can tell, the site used to attact more attention than it does now: It generally delivers more sniping than scoops. But there used to be a bit of speculation about who created the site in the first place: The blog's host is also anonymous. (And in legal filings, Roebuck complains that previous attempts to get information from the site did not receive a response.)

So I've got a feeling that no matter how the lawsuit proceeds, there'll be a few local journos smiling about how it's playing out so far.

UPDATE (3/11): A short time ago, I spoke with John Newborg, the attorney representing Roebuck in this suit. While this is a libel action (Roebuck is challenging her termination in another case, Newborg says) the lawyer wanted to make clear that he wasn't trying to dispense with the First Amendment. Roebuck's health history and employment status at the paper are "purely private," he told me. He added that he wouldn't have taken on the case had she been, say, a politician trying to squelch dissent. 

I asked Newborg to respond to the Tribune-Review's argument -- that even if the person who posted the comment is a Trib employee, the post was made by his or her own volition, rather than as part of official job duties.

"We're investigating the role that management plays on the site and in responding to the comments," he replied.  


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