Commenters beware: You could be sued

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Scott Angus
Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Before you post that comment on gazettextra.com, think about whether you know it to be true.

If you donít, if it turns out to be wrong, and if it damages someoneís reputation or business, you could be held liable.

And yes, that could cost you money. Lots of money.

Wait, you say. Iím anonymous. I can write what I want, and no one can hold me accountable.

Thatís not entirely true.

You are anonymous to other users of gazettextra.com, and you are anonymous to those of us who run the site.

If someone wants to track you down badly enough, however, and that person is willing to pay to get it done, you might find yourself in a courtroom answering for that damaging comment on our website.

The staff here at gazettextra.com doesnít easily give up information on our commenters. The forum is based on anonymity, and we generally protect that. And as most of you know, no one provides personal information when he or she chooses to comment. All we require is a username and a valid e-mail address.

Whether you know it or not, however, you also provide us with an IP address, which is tied to your e-mail service. While we wonít give a userís IP address to just anyone, we would be required to provide it if we received a subpoena.

From there, itís likely that someone with the power of the courts could learn your identity and haul you before a judge to face a libel suit.

Unlikely? Sure. But it has happened before in the U.S., and itís happening with more frequency due to the growing popularity of anonymous online forums. Several people this week linked from our comments to a McClatchy News Service story on the topic. Hereís another: online rants

Interestingly, the websites that host comments so far have been immune from legal action.

At gazettextra.com, we watch comments and remove those that we think are potentially libelous. We canít see them all, though, and itís possible that an actionable comment could stay up for hours or days if no one flags it or we simply miss it. We do our best, but weíre not perfect.

Given all that, hereís my adviceóculled from nearly three years of monitoring comments and reading everything I can find on the topicóto stay out of legal trouble with your comments on gazettextra.com:

  • Stick to opinions: You can say that you think that John Smith is a bad mayor. Thatís your opinion, and you are entitled to it. You canít say that John Smith stole money from the city unless you know it to be true and can prove it.

  • Stick to what you know: If you must include facts, be sure you can personally verify those facts. Too many people rely on second- and third-hand information. That wonít cut it. As soon as you write ďfrom what I understandĒ or ďIíve been told,Ē think hard about what you really know and whether you really want to post that comment. Itís likely to be removed. Worse, it could get you into trouble.

  • Donít be nasty: Thatís easy for me to say, but it shouldnít be that hard. The primary purpose of comments is to allow people to share their thoughts and opinions on important topics and issues. You can cover a lot of ground without dumping on someone else. If youíre tempted to say something nasty about someone, remember the two points above and think about the potential for a libeled person coming after you in court.

We enjoy having all of youóOK, most of youóvisit our site and contribute to the discussions. If you write something thatís wrong and defamatory, though, we canít protect you.

Last updated: 10:06 am Wednesday, August 28, 2013

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