But not all news organizations have tried to preserve the confidentiality of commenters. In one infamous example, an editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Kurt Greenbaum, took it upon himself to notify a school that someone had sent in a vulgar comment from the school's IP address. The commenter, a teacher at the school, ended up resigning.
Now, the Cleveland Plain Dealer has unilaterally decided to unmask the prolific commenter "lawmiss" as Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold. (The judge denies writing the messages; she and her daughter both say that the daughter authored the messages. But at least three of the 80-plus comments posted by "lawmiss" since 2007 appeared to have come from Saffold's courthouse computer, the Plain Dealer reports.)
Several of the comments concerned pending capital murder cases. But the remark that spurred the unmasking was a personal attack, dealing with the mental health of a relative of Plain Dealer reporter Jim Ewinger.
The Plain Dealer says that comment violated the site's terms of service. Of course, an editor could simply have deleted it and let the matter drop. Instead, Plain Dealer personnel looked up the commenter's registration information, realized that the email address belonged to the judge, and published its findings.
Notably, Saffold and the Plain Dealer weren't on the best of terms even before the final "lawmiss" comment. Earlier this month, Saffold threatened to hold Plain Dealer reporter Gabriel Baird in contempt unless he revealed the identity of the person who provided him with a psychiatric report of a suspected serial killer. (Saffold backed off after another judge admitted to leaking the report.)
Editor Susan Goldberg says it's newsworthy that a judge appears to have commented on pending cases. "What if it ever came to light that someone using the e-mail of a sitting judge made comments on a public Web site about cases she was hearing, and we did not disclose it? These are capital crimes and life-and-death issues for these defendants. I think not to disclose this would be a violation of our mission and damaging to our credibility as a news organization," she says.
Perhaps so. Still, the paper's decision clearly violates Saffold's expectation that her comments would remain anonymous. On first impression, that expectation seems reasonable; indeed, it's created by newspapers' decisions to allow people to post anonymously in the first place.
On one hand, the phrase "any lawful business purpose" seems to cover just about anything the newspaper would like, including reporting. On the other hand, the examples provided all deal with business-side issues.
Certainly the site doesn't explicitly warn people that violating the terms of service by posting comments deemed unacceptable will result in a loss of anonymity.
If newspapers like the Post-Dispatch and Plain Dealerintend to make a practice of unmasking commenters who violate terms of service, then the papers should unambiguously say so. But they shouldn't continue to blindside people by allowing them to believe they can post under screen names, only to divulge their identities once they write something the paper doesn't like.