Tennessee Judge Refuses to Ban Anonymous Comments About Murder Case

A judge in Knox County, Tennessee has refused to order news organizations to disable online comments on their stories related to a murder case or to police the comments by requiring posters to provide verifiable identifying information.  Defense attorneys representing four suspects in a 2007 fatal carjacking had filed a motion in February asking the judge to restrict media coverage in order to prevent jurors from learning about the case.

Two local news organizations, the Knoxville News Sentinel and WBIR-TV, quickly moved to intervene in the case and convinced the judge that such a ban would be an impermissible prior restraint on speech.

In the eight-page order he issued yesterday, Judge Richard Baumgartner wrote:

Any prior restraint of expression bears a "heavy presumption against its constitutional validity."   A defendant "carries a heavy burden of showing justification for the imposition of such a restraint." . . .

The relief sought currently is not the complete bar of media coverage of the proceedings, but rather a bar to the sharing of ideas between citizens who read or listen to the local media reports concerning this case, who wish to make anonymous public comment on the same in the media internet forums.  This Court has already granted alternative measures to mitigate the effects of unrestrained pretrial publicity by granting a change of venire to those defendants who have made the request; therefore, the juries who will hear and decide the charges will not be from the local media coverage area.  The relief sought also would not necessarily effectively operate to prevent the threatened danger.  Counsel asserts that the restraint is necessary to ensure the effective representation of the defendants.  Only two media outlets intervened in these proceedings.  The internet is not restricted to use by the media alone.  Private citizens have access to and utilize the internet everyday to freely discuss and exchange ideas whether on the internet forums of the two media outlets or otherwise. 

Considering all the factors, this Court cannot find that disabling the internet forums of the media internet sites would be an appropriate restraint.    

Judge Baumgartner also remarked on "this nation’s history of anonymous speech and its importance in the establishment of this country and its [C]onstitution."  Quoting extensively from Doe v. 2TheMart.com (opining that "Internet anonymity facilitates the rich, diverse, and far ranging exchange of ideas"), Judge Baumgartner concluded:

This Court agrees with the court in Doe v. 2TheMart.com Inc..  So long as people are not committing any wrongdoing, they should be free to anonymously participate in the online forums. Accordingly, this Court does not find that any restraint on the internet forums would be appropriate in this case.  

More information on the case and the judge's order is available from the News Sentinel.


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