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Opening Arguments

No names, please

In at least a partial victory for free speech, the Indiana Court of Appeals has reversed the order of a lower cour directing the Indianapolis Star to reveal the name of an anonymous poster to its website. Someone can't get a name just by alleging he was defamed; he has to show some proof he was actually damaged. This will have a less chilling effect on robust speech than the original ruling. But one part of the newspaper's argument is troubling:

While some media organizations provided names, The Star objected on several legal grounds, including the protections of the state's Shield Law and the constitutional right of free speech.

[. . .]

Star Editor and Vice President Dennis Ryerson said protecting the identity of sources is a basic tenet of journalism.

"Without that protection, people may not feel free to talk to us," Ryerson said. "Those sources include people who communicate to us on our websites. We are pleased that the appeals court reversed the lower court ruling."

It's the Shield Law part that bothers me. In the first place, the anonymous poster was not a "source" who was consulted during the preparation of the story, but a reader of the story commenting on it after the fact. Newspaper editors are supposed to be on the lookout for the unjustified stretching of a definition, not committing the same sin themselves.

And in the second place, I think it's a mistake for news organizations to set themselves apart as a preferred group with special priveleges by seeking and then using shield laws. How can they be the watchdogs of the government they rely on to confer legitimacy on them? The First Amendment protects the free-speech rights of all citizens, not just professional news organizations. Besides, cheap and instant access to a worldwide audience through the Internet is erasing the distinction between journalists and non-journalists. Anyone can be a publisher these days without owning a million-dollar printing press.

Some newspapers have always allowed anonymous letters to the editor. We haven't at The News-Sentinel, on the grounds that signed letters have more credibility and people who have to attach their names to their opinions are less likely to be reckless with the truth. But anonymity has a long and pround history in the annals of political discourse -- in fact, you could even say that the robust exchange of anonymous venom was intended by the framers. Online culture has created a whole new enthusiasm for commenting anonymously. I still don't like it that much, but we've bowed to the times and now allow online responses from people who don't want to leave their names.