The pieces drew hundreds of commenters, including many who posted under screen names. "What a heartbreaking, tragic story," wrote Erins83 in response to one of the Chronicle's articles. "Evil is a term only for the most twisted. This is beyond evil," said CSC10000.
Now, Coe's defense lawyer has subpoenaed the Chronicle (and other outlets) to learn the identity of the commenters, the Chroniclereports.
This incident is just one of many recent instances in which courts are being asked to unmask anonymous Web commenters. In some states the law surrounding this issue is unsettled, but many judges are requiring would-be unmaskers to show that they have a good reason for requesting people's identities.
In the infamous Liskula Cohen case in New York, Judge Joan Madden recently ordered Google to reveal the identity of the blogger behind Skanks in NYC -- but only after Cohen was able to show that she had a potentially meritorious libel case against the blogger.
Other judges in a host of states, including Arizona, California, Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland and Texas, have already ruled people can't just subpoena the names of anonymous commenters without good reason.
In Texas, commenters who wish to remain anonymous have even more ammunition. The state recently enacted a reporter's shield law that generally allows journalists to protect their sources' identities. Other courts have said that similar laws also allow newspapers to preserve the anonymity of Web commenters, on the theory that commenters can serve as sources for future articles.
Here, it's not clear why Coe's defense lawyer thinks that hundreds of commenters could possibly have relevant information, especially when it appears that many people who vented online were simply reacting to information in the articles. Regardless, it seems fairly clear that Coe isn't entitled to unmask the commenters -- at least not without a strong showing that they have information that could help his defense.