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Judge OKs Anonymous Comments, Blogger Won't Allow Them

There are a couple of interesting new posts around the blogosphere concerning anonymous online commenters. The first, over at Volokh, discusses a recent case out of Tennessee, State v. Cobbins, where a judge denied defendants' motion to require a media outlet to disable a portion of its Web site enabling Web users to post comments (mostly anonymous) about the pending case. Defendants argued that the site comments could prejudice jurors. The judge denied the motion for a variety of reasons, noting the importance of the First Amendment rights at stake:

The right to speak anonymously extends to speech via the Internet. Internet anonymity facilitates the rich, diverse, and far ranging exchange of ideas. The “ability to speak one's mind” on the Internet “without the burden of the other party knowing all the facts about one's identity can foster open communication and robust debate.” People who have committed no wrongdoing should be free to participate in online forums without fear that their identity will be exposed under the authority of the court.

Volokh agreed with the judge's decision, finding that the potential harm to the defendants from anonymous comments is fairly low:

Whatever one might say about the risk of incurable juror prejudice from media accounts, it would apply least to user comments, especially anonymous ones. Such comments are so low in credibility that it's hard for me to see jurors being much influenced by them, especially in the face of instructions from a judge that explain why such out-of-court sources should be ignored.

But are anonymous comments as noble or lacking in harm as the foregoing case would suggest? There's another side to the issue -- that of the hosting bloggers, who are fast tiring of junk comments clogging up their comment sections. For that reason, Houston criminal defense lawyer Mark Bennett instituted a new policy at his blog, Defending People, stipulating that:

Absent compelling reasons, this blog will join [another blog] in not publishing any comments of anonymous commenters. All comments must [include] a commenters' names (first and last) and real and verifiable email addresses.

Bennett observed that without accountability, commenters often staked out irrational or unsupported positions undeserving of public view. Bennett acknowledged that anonymous comments are not per se lacking in merit; he notes that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison often wrote anonymously to ensure that their opinions stood on their own merit. Unfortunately, Bennett realized that most of his anonymous commenters are not Jeffersons or Madisons and as such, he's not willing to tolerate them. But Bennett does allow exceptions, and if a commenter can make a compelling argument for retaining anonymity, Bennett will consider the request on a case-by-case basis.

Rob Bodine at What About Clients? supports Bennett's decision. Bodine writes that "The blogosphere, though, is still a mess, with too many nameless commenters who disrespect themselves and us, and waste our time." As such, WAC? is thrilled that a respected blogger like Mark Bennett is imposing this policy.

What's your view? Do anonymous comments cause more harm than good? Does the lack of accountability completely detract from the credibility of anonymous comments, or is it the lack of the quality of anonymous posts that is to blame? Post your thoughts below -- not anonymously, we hope!

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on July 20, 2009 at 02:37 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)


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