Several years ago, I posted about an assistant U.S. attorney in New Orleanswho posted “anonymously” on nola.com about ongoing criminal cases, got caught, and lost his job. There are other instances of individuals who thought they were posting anonymously on various websites, but were identified in a variety of ways. Now, the District Attorney in Limestone County, Alabama is seeking to compel al.com to identify anonymous posters who commented on stories involving a capital murder case. Assistant DA Matt Huggins alleges that the posts have nothing to do with the derogatory comments directed towards his office, but rather that the poster appears to have “details of the crime that prosecutors say makes that person a material witness and they have subpoenaed al.com wanting to know who it is.” The attorney for al.com, Daniel Kaufmann, told WHNT news that “The First Amendment does protect a person’s ability to speak anonymously against public officials. And so there is some protection recognized in Supreme Court cases. But the government also does have a right to investigate capital murder crimes so obviously there’s some balancing test the judge will have to go through.”
Practice pointers. Once again, the attempts to obtain the identity of an anonymous poster supports my position that nothing on the Internet is private: although the court has not yet ruled on the prosecutors motion, in light of the seriousness of the crime, I think it is likely that the court will require al.com to turn the information over. In any case, civil or criminal, anonymous posters on any Internet website should be aware that they may not be anonymous if a court orders that their identity be disclosed.