Last week, an Oregon state judge ruled that Oregon's media shield law, found at Or. Rev. Stat. §§ 44.510 to 44.540, protected the identity of an anonymous commenter who posted allegedly defamatory statements on The Portland Mercury and Willamette Week websites.
According to The Portland Mercury, staff writer Amy Ruiz wrote a post in January 2008 about Portland mayoral candidate Sho Dozono. In the comments section, a site user going by "Ronald" posted negative comments about Dozono's ties to a local businessman, Terry Beard. The same commenter allegedly posted similar statements on the Willamette Week site. Beard filed a motion to compel the two online newspapers to give up "Ronald's" IP address before an Oregon state court. The two competitors teamed up to oppose the discovery request and won.
Interestingly, Judge James E. Redman of Clackamas County Court did not treat "Ronald" as a confidential source. Section 44.520(a) of the Oregon Revised Statutes protects from disclosure "[t]he source of any published or
unpublished information obtained by the person in the course of gathering, receiving
or processing information for any medium of communication to the public." Instead, the court relied on section 44.520(b), which protects "[a]ny unpublished information obtained
or prepared by the person in the course of gathering, receiving or processing
information for any medium of communication to the public." Section 44.510(1) defines "information" as including "any written, oral, pictorial or
electronically recorded news or other data." The court characterized "Ronald's" IP address as data.
On the question of whether the newspapers obtained this data in the course of newsgathering, Judge Redman drew a line based on the relevance of the blog comment to the post it's attached to:
If the comment had been totally unrelated to the blog post, then the argument could be made that the Portland Mercury did not receive it in the "course of gathering, receiving, or processing information for any medium of communication to the public." (source)
Concluding that the IP address fit within the shield law's "broad statutory language," the court denied Beard's motion to compel.
Perhaps we're seeing an emerging trend. In September, a Montana judge ruled that his state's shield law protected the identity of an anonymous commenter to the Billings Gazette. (See my post for details.) Previously, anonymous commenters and service providers had relied almost exclusively on First Amendment protection for anonymous speech to block these kinds of discovery requests.