By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Cohasset selectmen seek to muzzle commenters

Cohasset Town Hall

Cohasset Town Hall

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:

GateHouse Media has complied with the subpoenas to the Cohasset Mariner and released the IP address and emails related to those screen names in accordance with its privacy policy.

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.

Further reading:

Photo (cc) by ToddC4176 and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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  1. Larz Neilson

    Curious to know the nature of the posted comments — do they relate to selectmen’s positions & statements on issues, or are they just nasty personal comments?

  2. I’m not clear why theu don’t just attack it from the other end. Since ALL EMAIL AND POSTING from government owned computers falls under the public records law and must be produced upon citizen request, they should be able to tell from their server who has posted on the site. Or just block posting in general from the town computers, except those available for use by the public like a library.

    I mean, they wouldn’t want town employees posting fluff positive comments either, right?

  3. Dan,
    As the law has developed since DMCA was enacted, typically, a web host will not turn over personal identifying information until it has received a subpoena from a judge (i.e., NOT just a subpoena from the lawyer). In order to get that subpoena, the applicant (plaintiff) must demonstrate to the judge that there is sufficient cause to believe that libel (or other tortious act) has occurred. “Sufficient cause” means different things in different jurisdictions, but here in Massachusetts, a plaintiff must make a showing that would be sufficient to grant summary judgment.

    This kind of stuff isn’t new to the South Shore. You should spend 2 minutes perusing Such ugliness.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Peter: Not new to the South Shore? Not new to the Internet!

  4. Yes, the internet – the “electronic version of the town green.”
    — MacDonald v. Paton, 57 Mass. App. Ct. 290 (2003)

  5. I absolutely agree Dan. I do not understand why online media won’t follow the same practice as print in requiring name and address for letters to the editor.

    Apparently, it’s going to take a big court settlement to get their attention.

  6. Mike LaBonte

    Four years ago there was a scandal in Haverhill, described in the editorial linked below. To my knowledge it was the Eagle Tribune that set out to discover who the commenters were, after noticing that the same IP addresses were showing up beside many names. No subpoena needed. The City Councilor at the center of the story was censured and ultimately served only one term. But even the still-seated Mayor was complicit in posting under “pseudonyms”.

  7. Matt Kelly

    Jeez, Cohasset, just install some keystroke-logging software on town-owned computers, which as an employer and owner of the goods you’re perfectly allowed to do. Done.

    Of course, this is still an entirely stupid waste of town resources, and shame on Gatehouse as well for its shoddy commenting process, but it’s not like a subpoena is really necessary for the selectmen to achieve their goal of muzzling nitwits on their staff.

  8. I worry that leaving it to someone’s discretion to “screen all comments for taste, offensiveness … before allowing them to be posted” is a bit too broad and not something a newspaper should be in the business of — with the exception libelous content and clearly defined parameters of offensiveness (I think the Boston Globe’s policy is a good example:

    That said, I do think shining the bright light of accountability by requiring an email address and full name is an important step for elevating the level of discourse on the internet and avoiding situations like this.

    It also seems to me that the town would be better off monitoring internet activity from their computers rather than huffing and puffing about subpoenas for newspapers.

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