Judge: Shield law doesn't protect online commenters

Illinois shield law doesn't protect 'online bloggers,' judge says, but he appears to mean only anonymous commenters on a newspaper article.

Illinois has a shield law that protects reporters from having to reveal their sources. But a state judge held that the law does not apply to "online bloggers" and ordered the Alton (IL) Telegraph to turn over the identities of two people who commented on the newspaper's website, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports.

Prosecutors have been seeking the identities of five people who posted comments on an article about the horrific beating death of five-year-old Ethan Allen. The paper resisted, asserting the press shield. Judge Richard Tognarelli said three of the comments were just discussion, irrelevant to the investigation but the identities of "purplebutterfly" and "mrssully" must be turned over because they posted information relevant to the investigation.

How you view this ruling probably turns on how you define "blogger." Someone who posts a comment on a news article doesn't qualify as a blogger in any normal sense of the term. The reporter's shield should absolutely extend to bloggers defined as people who do journalism online. See, for instance, the 2006 California case of Apple v. Does, where the Court of Appeals found the California shield was intended to extend to all ongoing, recurring news publications."

But a commenter on an article? I have a hard time seeing those people as news sources that need to be protected. Typically, there is no communication between source and reporter, no promise of confidentiality, no societal need to protect the identity of someone who posts relevant information in a public forum. The purpose of the press shield is to allow reporters to obtain information they wouldn't be able to obtain without a promise of confidentiality.

One can quibble over the judge's use of the term "blogger," but he is correct, I think, (realizing I'm not looking at the actual language of the Illinois law) that anonymous commenters are not contemplated in most press shields.