Something very strange is going on in Cohasset, according to The Patriot Ledger of Quincy and an affiliated weekly, The Cohasset Mariner.
The Cohasset selectmen, according to reports in both papers, are engaged in a snipe hunt to ferret out the identities of anonymous commenters to the Ledger and Mariner websites. The papers are owned by GateHouse Media, a national chain that owns about 100 newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts and publishes websites under the name Wicked Local.
Town officials have gone so far as to consider a subpoena to the two papers to force them to turn over the IP (Internet Protocol) addresses of some particularly unhinged commenters to see if they are using government-owned computers at town hall. (Each computer on the Internet has a unique IP address.) Such activities, the selectmen say, would violate town policy.
Last Thursday, the selectmen canceled a meeting when their lawyer was unable to produce a draft subpoena for their consideration. But, in a parallel action, the Mariner has reportedly received a subpoena from a former selectman who has filed a libel suit against two anonymous commenters. In a sidebar to a Ledger story that also appears on the Mariner site, there is this:
There’s a lot going on here, but let me offer a few observations.
• The selectmen are way out of line in even thinking they can demand that the newspapers turn over identifying information so that they can punish their own employees. I hope GateHouse officials will stand firm if they receive a subpoena demanding such information.
• The libel suit is an entirely different matter. Under federal law, website operators are not liable for content posted by third parties such as anonymous commenters, according to the Digital Media Law Project. But the commenters themselves are not immune from libel suits or other actions, and website operators may be compelled to help those bringing suit find out who they are. It doesn’t sound like GateHouse did anything out of line in turning over IP and email addresses, though I would certainly like to know more.
• The First Amendment is one thing; best practices are another. Though GateHouse has every right to let anonymous commenters vent in public, such behavior has an effect on the newspapers’ brand and reputation. GateHouse should put an end to anonymous comments (as Media Nation did several years ago) — or, at the very least, screen all comments for taste, offensiveness and libelous content before allowing them to be posted.
Finally, though GateHouse reporter Erin Dale seems to be doing a good job of covering her employer’s own story, this cries out for some outside scrutiny. I’d love to see The Boston Globe dig into this.
- “Blog wars: Officials try to quash anonymous ‘blogging,’” by Erin Dale, The Cohasset Mariner, April 19
- “Subpoenas seek names of online posters,” by Erin Dale, The Cohasset Mariner, May 2
- “Cohasset selectmen cancel meeting about subpoena for addresses of Ledger Web commenters,” by Erin Dale, The Patriot Ledger, May 3
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