Commentary

Cleveland Paper Unmasks Judge As Commenter

In the last few years, newspapers have gone to court in a number of high-profile cases to protect the anonymity of online commenters. Some have even invoked state reporter shield laws, arguing that commenters, like sources, can help develop a story and, therefore, are entitled to confidentiality.

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.)

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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.

The site's privacy policy doesn't promise commenters anonymity, but neither does the paper say it will unmask people in Saffold's situation. The policy states: "We reserve the right to use the information we collect about your computer, which may at times be able to identify you, for any lawful business purpose, including without limitation to help diagnose problems with our servers, to gather broad demographic information, and to otherwise administer our Website."

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.

5 comments about "Cleveland Paper Unmasks Judge As Commenter".
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  1. M S from Skilled Communications, March 30, 2010 at 5:52 p.m.

    Isn't it all about one, precedent, and, two, what the average person's expectation of privacy is? Couldn't the Post-Dispatch and Plain Dealer easily rectify this by not publishing anonymous posts? This policy may reduce the number of comments, but it also probably will improve the quality of them.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, March 30, 2010 at 9:25 p.m.

    Letters to the editor which are published in a newspaper must have the identity of the writer. Should on line comments be any different to establish credibility?

  3. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, March 31, 2010 at 8:30 a.m.

    This isn't about an average person's expectation, this is a public figure, specifically, a sitting judge. The comments are inappropriate for the judge based on the topic and the forum. That makes it newsworthy, which trumps an assumed right of privacy, which public figures have less of.

    Suppose Tiger Woods used a similar forum to post messages about himself or any of his business, and it was discovered the poster was, in fact, Tiger. You think the newspaper would afford him some kind of privacy protection? The same principle applies.

  4. Ed Wasserman from Washington and Lee University, April 1, 2010 at 1:38 p.m.

    I think there's underlying confusion between the status of somebody who posts unsigned opinion online and that of a confidential news source, who's known to the journalist and who should have a good reason to insist that he or she remain anonymous. I explored this recently in my Miami Herald media column, which you can see at: http://edwardwasserman.com/2009/09/28/are-anonymous-online-posters-the-new-confidential-sources/

  5. Jerry Foster from Energraphics, April 2, 2010 at 6:08 a.m.

    A site that would do the above would lose a lot of trust from the Internet community and I can see the Plain Dealer getting only politically correct commenters going forward (politically correct comments are the most boring and least informational).

    Actually, Tiger Woods should be able to assume that anonymous comments he leaves at a professional paper would remain that way, although it would be stupid for him (and would have been extremely stupid of the judge above) to register with an email address directly attributed to him or her (publicly known as such which includes having registered at Facebook with that email address). Operating from his home without a fixed IP, Tiger could be mostly assured of anonymity while commenting. But professionals should grant him secret source respect in any case, letting him comment away as a third person...or risk losing good comments on their site along with the respect of the Internet community (I don't respect the Plain Dealer for doing this).

    Those who say that comments would "improve" if people cannot post anonymously couldn't be more wrong. Not only would sites lose great off-the-record sources that clearly post under articles all the time, political correctness thrives on shaming and political correctness is the biggest dumb-downer of any society.

    One can argue that the Internet's record-keeping ability has guaranteed that our future politicians will be dumber and dumber in terms of being more politically correct than ever. Idiot populations, able to see "proof" that someone smoked pot in college or that some Republican politicians "didn't like radical feminists in college" can guarantee us a lot of weak-willed politically correct momma's boys asking us to elect them because they have "squeaky-clean images".

    I think it was very wrong of the paper to have outed this judge. If things got personal, the reporter could have just scared the judge by giving her a call and having it out personally (believe me, she would have really lightened up online after that).

    They could even have published how "a judge we cannot name did this and that online".

    This is not to say I like the idea of a judge being so opinionated. They are supposed to listen and read and weigh nuance in the balance, hopefully growing in wisdom as they read other's comments. But the journalists were unprofessional in that they should know that outing commenters is seen as very bad form in the Internet community.

    Does anyone know the judge's politics by the way? I am curious about that and what she tended to say online.

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