Anonymity Blown – Right Or Wrong?

The Cleveland Plain Dealer finds itself in the middle of controversy arising from its decision to expose the identity of an otherwise anonymous poster on its Web site. The poster used the name “lawmiss” and was a fairly frequent commenter. Turns out, lawmiss had the same e-mail address as Cuyahoga County Commons Pleas Judge Shirley Saffold. And, interestingly, lawmiss had posted opinions on at least three cases pending before Judge Saffold. After the Plain Dealer confronted the judge with its findings, Judge Saffold’s daughter claimed responsibility for the posts. It’s an interesting story. But the ethical debate is maybe even more important. Newspapers typically do not identify anonymous posters – at least not without a fight. The First Amendment recognizes the right not only to speak, but to speak anonymously. But what happens when the poster’s identity is newsworthy in itself? Can a news organization not report that a close relative of a judge is posting comments about the judge’s cases? The Plain Dealer obviously concluded it could not pass on the story. Other commenters, though are not so sure. The linked article notes that some news organizations block poster information from the editorial department to avoid this very dilemma. It’s a tough call. But once a news organization decides to unmask an anonymous poster for its own purposes, how aggressively can it resist providing a poster’s identity when a third party asks for it?