Alcovy High School Principal LaQuanda Carpenter, left, sits with her attorney Stephanie Lindsey during Tuesday's motions hearing in Newton County Superior Court. Staff Photos: Sue Ann Kuhn-Smith
COVINGTON -- A Newton County Superior Court judge ruled Tuesday that the Newton Citizen does not yet have to reveal the identities of anonymous posters from its website.
During a nearly three-hour motions hearing in connection with a defamation lawsuit filed by Alcovy High School Principal LaQuanda Carpenter, Judge Eugene Benton ordered attorney Stephanie Lindsey to attempt to notify the anonymous posters as well as depose them and other witnesses before attempting to request identifying information from the newspaper.
Additionally, he ruled that the Georgia Shield statute applies to the case.
"The plaintiff cannot force the Newton Citizen to reveal the identities unless the plaintiff has used all other reasonable efforts to find them," said David Hudson, the attorney for the Georgia Press Association representing the Citizen.
Carpenter had filed a suit in April claiming originally that 11 web commenters posted libelous, defamatory comments and false information that subjected her to public hatred. She also subpoenaed the Citizen requesting all information and documents sufficient to identify the names, addresses and telephone numbers associated with the commenters, as well as documents reproducing the texts of the comments and all server logs, IP address logs, account information, account access records and application or registration forms related to the commenters.
Hudson filed a motion in May to quash the subpoena, citing that the Georgia Shield Law protects journalists against disclosing the information and also that the anonymous web posters are afforded protection under the First Amendment.
Both sides argued their points during the motions hearing Tuesday, citing previous court cases around the country dealing with similar issues, since Georgia has not previously seen a case like this.
Lindsey said the web comments were a "systematic approach to destroy (Carpenter's) reputation ... effectively causing a mob of people against her ... (and) making Dr. Carpenter look like she's the devil."
Hudson said that in addition to the comments being protected by the Shield law, only two of them could possibly be argued as defamatory if the facts in them are proven to be false.
He argued that most of the comments posted are opinion or commentary, protected by the First Amendment.
"It's a fundamental American right to speak anonymously," Hudson said, adding that public figures should know that members of the public might not always agree with the things they do and may speak out against them.
Under the Shield law, a plaintiff has to prove she cannot obtain the information elsewhere. Hudson told the judge that Lindsey already had claimed in an amendment to her suit that Newton County Board of Education Vice Chair Jeff Meadors had created three of the IDs to make comments on the site, proving she has alternative means to identify the web posters.
During the hearing, Lindsey attempted to call on Citizen editor Alice Queen to answer questions. Lindsey also had subpoenaed Newton County School System Superintendent Gary Mathews and each member of the school board to speak about Carpenter and prove the information in the postings is false, citing a need for an evidentiary hearing.
Shannon Black, an individual who has claimed two of the IDs, also was subpoenaed but has yet to be named in the suit.
Meadors was present with his attorney Jeff Foster of Foster & Hanks LLC in Monroe. Carpenter's husband, Dennis Carpenter, deputy superintendent of Operations at NCSS, also was present in the courtroom.
Lindsey said that she was ready to move forward with her case, call witnesses and enter evidence, and didn't want to waste the time of the court since they would end up back in the courtroom anyway.
"I don't understand why we're fighting the inevitable," she said. "There's no need to come back if we get the evidence today."
Benton told Lindsey that the motion hearing was not yet the time to call forth witnesses.
"That is what the trial is for," he said.
The judge also told Lindsey that proper notification had not been given to the web posters identified in the suit, although she claimed that they were provided notification since the Citizen wrote articles about the case and the web posters made comments on the articles.
"We didn't have to (notify them)," Lindsey argued.
However, the judge disagreed.
"The plaintiff must make the effort. You can't let (the Citizen) do it for you," Benton said. "Before you filed a complaint, you should have ran a notice somewhere, somehow.
"They might not know the law and that a lawyer could represent them anonymously," he added. "That doesn't end the process. That just starts the process."
Benton ordered Lindsey to notify the anonymous posters, informing them that they have the right to be represented or anonymously represented. They must be informed of the hearing date and have time to object; Benton felt that 30 days was enough notice to give them.
He also requested that Lindsey and Hudson submit briefs in order to be prepared upon return to the courtroom; he added that Lindsey could set up depositions of witnesses as well as Meadors and Black to "resolve a lot of the issues" before returning to the courtroom.
Other information can be obtained through the discovery process, Benton said.
"It doesn't stop you from re-filing a subpoena," he said.
Lindsey also is to show efforts to obtain information of the commenters by means other than subpoenaing the newspaper for information.
"If I allowed (the IP addresses to be released), the Newton Citizen would give the information without (the web posters) having the right to object to it," Benton said. "The Newton Citizen can't file a motion to dismiss."
Lindsey is a candidate for Newton County Superior Court judge, opposing incumbent Chief Judge John Ott, in this year's nonpartisan race.