‘Gaston Gazette’ Wins Ruling in Anonymous-Comments Case

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By: The Associated Press

(AP) A North Carolina judge has ruled that news organizations do not have to release the identities of people who make comments on their online news articles.

Gaston County Superior Court Judge Calvin Murphy ruled the Gaston Gazette did not have to tell the attorney for a murder suspect who a commentator was on an article about the case.

The identity of a commentator had been sought by an attorney for Michael Mead, who is charged with shooting his fiancee Lucy Johnson twice in the back of the head then burning her house down to conceal the crime in 2008.

Mead’s attorney had sought the identity of someone who left an online comment on the newspaper’s website. The comment listed information related to a lie-detector test taken by the murder suspect, said attorney John Bussian, who represents the Gazette.

The judge’s order issued Tuesday cites the First Amendment and North Carolina’s shield law that protects news gatherers from having to release the identities of its sources, the Charlotte Observer reported Saturday.

“The Gazette and (publisher Julie) Moreno have a qualified privilege against compelled disclosure of … identifying information collected by The Gazette from posters to its website,” the order said.

The order also said Mead’s attorney did not demonstrate the information sought could not be obtained elsewhere and was essential to his defense.

“The press can operate freely without the worry that someone is going to go into the whole comment-posting and editorial process and shine a light, stare over your shoulder and make you think twice about what you’re going to say,” Bussian said.

An attorney for the North Carolina Press Association said the ruling is a significant protection against release of commentator information to a third party, but does not cover all online comments.

“The shield law is a case-by-case analysis,” Martin said. “It is not a blanket prohibition on compelled information. But it sets out a threshold or a standard before the court can order information turned over.”

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