Judge orders identities of commenters be revealed

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Anonymous bloggers beware. You may not be as anonymous as you think.

Forward Township Supervisor Thomas DeRosa has won a court victory in the action that he filed in November to uncover the identities of people who posted comments on an online bulletin board that he said defamed him.

On Wednesday, the ACLU, which had intervened in the case, turned over the Internet Protocol addresses of six individuals who made specific posts that Mr. DeRosa mentioned in his court filings.

That action follows an announcement Tuesday night by West Mifflin Area school director Albert Graham, who vowed to take legal action to obtain the names of individuals who he said had posted threats against his life on the West Mifflin page of the discussion board Topix.com.

Web service providers have protection from comments made by third-party posters under a federal 1996 telecommunications law. But some courts require them to release the names of posters' identities if a strong enough case is made for defamation.

The ACLU's actions in the Forward case followed a July 22 ruling by Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr. that information about the individuals who made the postings about Mr. DeRosa be turned over. The ACLU will not file an appeal in the case, said Sara Rose, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Richard Rattanni, who operates elizabethboro.com, where the comments were posted, said he was disappointed in the ruling.

"I think it's bad for our First Amendment rights to just hand them over," said Mr. Rattanni, who is not facing any legal action in the matter.

"It's going to send a big rippling effect through every discussion board and make people afraid to post."

Neither Mr. DeRosa nor his attorney could be reached for comment on the court decision. But in his filings Mr. DeRosa said the alleged defamatory comments posted to elizabethboro.com related to his actions as a township supervisor and accused him of corruption and damaged his reputation.

While the IP addresses that were supplied to Mr. DeRosa don't immediately identify the individuals, they do identify their Internet service providers and now Mr. DeRosa and his attorneys can petition those providers to release the names.

That process may take a while, Ms. Rose said, since the Internet service providers will likely be required to give the individuals notice that their identities are being sought and allow them the opportunity to take court action to stop the release.

That's exactly what's going on in a case in West Mifflin, where police Sgt. Robert Husfelt is seeking the identity of individuals who he said defamed him on the West Mifflin page of Topix.com -- the same site where the comments about Dr. Graham appeared.

In Sgt. Husfelt's case, a subpoena was served on the operator of the Topix site seeking the identities of the users who posted messages about him, and Topix provided the IP addresses of the posters to him, but did not know their identities, according to court filings. The messages were about an event during which Sgt. Husfelt and his wife were target shooting in a wooded area in West Mifflin, court documents indicate.

In July, a motion was granted for Sgt. Husfelt's attorneys to subpoena Comcast Communications to get the identities of the individuals who made the postings, but the court gave Comcast seven days to notify the subscribers that their identities were being sought and gave subscribers 21 days to file papers contesting the subpoena.

One of the four individuals who received the notice, with the help of the ACLU, filed a motion for protective order because the individual said it was not clear he or she was one of the people who posted the perceived defamatory comments and because the disclosure would violate the right to anonymous speech under the First Amendment.

As a result, Comcast has been barred by the court from releasing any identities until the issue is settled. On Aug. 9, Sgt. Husfelt's attorney filed a motion to file an amended complaint.

Though Ms. Rose is not involved in the case of Dr. Graham, she said there could be an element of immediacy if he files court action and a judge believes there is a true threat to his safety or that of his family.

Dr. Graham became a public target on the Topix website after his name surfaced in late April in an investigative report by the firm Gentile-Meinert, which outlined work alleged to have been done at his home by district maintenance workers during their regular work hours.

Dr. Graham said on Tuesday night that he is afraid to leave his home and he fears for the safety of his wife and three children.

However, West Mifflin police Chief Ken Davies said he did not believe the postings regarding Dr. Graham -- one of which suggested a plastic bag be tied over his head and another that suggested he be thrown into his pool with a rock attached to his foot -- posed imminent danger to Dr. Graham or his family.

"If they were more direct we would have taken action, Chief Davies said.

He said he referred Dr. Graham to the district attorney's office and the FBI's task force on Internet crimes.

The chief said he is interested to see if the identities can be obtained from the Topix site through court action.

Ms. Rose said that most Internet service providers do provide the names of posters if they receive a court order requiring them to do so.

"Unless you go to a public computer where you don't have to set up an account to use it and you absolutely can't be traced, there is always the possibility that someone will be able to uncover your identity," she said.


Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com ; 412-851-1512.


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