Legal Briefing: Will Your Anonymous Online Comment Remain Anonymous?


A daily look at legal news and the business of law...

Should Newspapers Identify Commenters Accused of Defamation?

A New Orleans politician is tired of getting trashed in the comments of the Times-Picayune's website,, so he's suing to find out whom to sue, reports the New York Times. Steve J. Theriot, the interim president of Jefferson Parish, La., wants to know who has been calling him, among other things, "corrupt" and a "mobster." The paper is rightly -- in my view -- fighting the release of its commenters' names, given the very high threshold that public figures need to meet to win a defamation lawsuit.

While there's a good argument that people should always have the courage of their convictions and stand behind them publicly by name, that's not how the Internet -- or even journalism (think anonymous sources) -- works. The Times-Picayune notes it would release commenters' names if the comments threatened someone's life or something similar, so it's not as if anonymity is absolute. News websites across the country are confronting this issue, and even if lawsuits like Theriot's fail, it's possible to see limitations of anonymity develop if only so sites can avoid lawsuits and dealing with related hassles. Let's hope it doesn't come to that.

Oil Spill Lawsuits Spreading Like the Slick Itself

The Washington Post has a good profile of the many plaintiffs firms behind the first wave of lawsuits against BP (BP) and its business partners. The spill's economically dynamic location makes the stakes very high, the lawyers note, unlike the remote terrain of the Exxon Valdez spill. If the leak goes on for a few more months, some lawyers are predicting that BP won't be able to afford to pay up. From my view, one of the most interesting dramas that the lawsuits will expose -- admittedly a subplot, not the main narrative -- will be the role of the government regulator. Already exposed in 2008 for partying and having sex with industry lobbyists, Interior Department regulators gave new meaning to "regulatory capture." Publicly exposing just how thoroughly industry subverted the agency to its own ends would be incredibly useful, from a government reform perspective.

Meanwhile, damage estimates could be orders of magnitude too small. For example, newly discovered deep-water oil plumes from the spill could cause large new "dead zones" in the Gulf because bacteria eating the plumes consume dissolved oxygen needed by marine life.

One of the most disturbing aspects of this situation are the "known unknowns." That is, we know that we don't know how to cap the leak; how much oil is leaking; what the consequences to the Gulf Coast economy will be; what the damage to wildlife and the environment will be; whether the spill will be swept around Florida and up the East Coast; and what additional damage could be caused by any hurricanes in the Gulf in the next six months. I don't want to even think about the "unknown unknowns."