COVINGTON -- A Newton County Superior Court judge has granted the Newton Citizen's motion to quash a subpoena seeking information from the newspaper for a defamation suit that would identify anonymous web posters.
Judge Eugene Benton signed an order Thursday granting the Citizen's motion to stop the subpoena, which was issued in connection with a lawsuit filed by LaQuanda Brown Carpenter, principal of Alcovy High School. Attorney Stephanie Lindsey filed the suit on behalf of Carpenter in April against 11 "John Does" who commented about Carpenter on the Citizen website. The lawsuit was later amended to include eight web posters.
The subpoena requested from the Citizen all information and documents sufficient to identify the names, addresses and telephone numbers associated with those named in the lawsuit, as well as documents reproducing the texts of the comments from Jan. 1, 2011, to present and all server logs, IP address logs, account information, account access records and application or registration forms related to those named.
"Judge Benton held that the subpoena to the newspaper was covered by the Georgia Shield Law," said David Hudson, the attorney for the Georgia Press Association who is representing the Citizen. "Pursuant to that law, a party may not force the disclosure of information from a newspaper until the party has first exhausted alternative sources to acquire the information."
The order also requires that the plaintiff must notify the anonymous posters on the Citizen's message board of their right to appear in this matter and remain anonymous through representation by counsel until the court orders otherwise. The plaintiff must provide the notification to the court for prior approval before posting it.
"Judge Benton also held that the First Amendment protects anonymous speech as well as speech communicated via the Internet," Hudson said about the ruling.
The order rules that the plaintiff will still have the right to reissue the subpoena at a later date.
"If Ms. Carpenter and her lawyer take all the required steps and still come up empty, then they can serve a new subpoena," Hudson said. "At that point the issue would also be which ones, if any, of the comments alleged in the complaint can sustain defamation claims, as opposed to being statements of opinion that are not actionable."
Hudson said that as far as he knows, this is the first case on the identity of anonymous bloggers in Georgia.
"It is a precedent-setter in that regard," he said.