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Naming names

A local case shows how 'anonymous' blog posts don't always stay that way

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The messages were among hundreds posted on a now-defunct Internet blog site called Central Coast Housing Bubble. Well before most news organizations were focused on the issue, the blog chronicled signs of distress in the local housing market. They named names, traded rumors, and dished dirt on, for example, which builders seemed to be in trouble.

The messages included information that demonstrated many posters had intimate knowledge of the subjects they discussed.

As is common on blogs, nearly all of the messages were posted by people who were anonymous or used obvious pseudonyms. A lawsuit working its way through San Luis Obispo courts, however, has revealed not only the identities of a handful of posters, but also how thin the veil of online anonymity can be.

In the lawsuit, Ed Palmer, a self-identified developer and investor who worked with troubled area builder Alan Little, is suing several people originally identified only as “John and Jane Does 1-20.” He’s suing the individuals—but not the blog site—for libel, invasion of privacy, and infliction of emotional distress.

The case was filed in May of 2008. In the time since, Palmer’s attorney has compelled Google—over the objections of at least one of the anonymous posters—to identify three individuals and one business associated with the posts in question.

Palmer asserts in the lawsuit that the  posters, including Al Brill of Arroyo Grande, and Scott Barnes of San Luis Obispo, violated his privacy and libeled him in posts that mentioned the words “money laundering,” that alluded to a past criminal conviction, and that implied he was cooperating with an investigation into another builder.
 
In their responses, the individuals have denied the allegations, arguing that the statements were either true or expressions of opinion, which are both protected under the First Amendment. Barnes, for example, noted that the only post in question regarding him was one where he seemed to infer that Palmer was a protected witness and “in cooperation with an ongoing investigation of corruption and fraud.”

Barnes’ attorney, Darren Epps, wrote that Barnes not only didn’t mean to refer directly to Palmer, but that even if someone took it that way there’s nothing libelous about saying that someone is cooperating with an investigation.

Brill’s attorney, Jill Friedman, declined comment regarding specifics of the case, but in court records Brill has denied the charges and described the case as a “SLAPP suit,” or a lawsuit aimed primarily at silencing critics. Friedman has sought to have the case dismissed on those grounds.

The blog itself has become inactive. In a page still visible on its site, centralcoasthousingbubble.blogspot.com, the moderator, who went by the psydonym “SLO Bear,” denied that the blog was stopped as a result of the lawsuit, noting that neither the blogger nor the blog had been sued.

Attorney Jesse Hill, representing Brill before he was identified, fought the original motion to identify the posters, arguing that people have a First Amendment right to retain their anonymity and noting that Palmer himself had admitted in court documents that he had, in fact, served time in prison.

Palmer’s attorney declined to comment for this article.

Attorneys for the Electronic Frontier Foundation have filed several friend-of-the-court briefs in similar matters, and Hill said he relied on EFF’s work in preparing the motion, which wasn’t granted.

In their filings, EFF attorneys have noted that anonymous speech has a rich history in America. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison published the Federalist Papers under pseudonyms, for example, and several Supreme Court decisions have backed the right to remain anonymous.

Dan Blackburn, a former New Times news editor, is co-editor of an investigative online news site called CalCoastNews.com. The site routinely attracts dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of responses to posted stories.

When the site first launched about a year ago, Blackburn said, he struggled with how to respond to freewheeling discussions that would occasionally veer into profanity and name-calling, but would also provide interesting and relevant information and comments.

In one case, he said, Heritage Oaks Bank demanded that certain information be retracted when an anonymous poster appeared to post bank account information. The editors complied with a request to redact that information, and have since implemented certain rules of behavior that, for example, bar personal name-calling and profanity. The rules have somewhat tamed a site that he said at first felt like the Old West. It has, however, also led to fewer posts, Blackburn said.

Another legal action nearly brought down a previous version of the site. Blackburn said their former website provider shut down a previous version of the site after an attorney from Point Center Financial in Aliso Viejo demanded the retraction of certain information.

Blackburn said the legal actions involving his site and the case involving centralcoasthousingbubble.com may be linked.

A recent anonymous poster on the site, for example, wrote that an attorney had also learned the identities of certain people who have posted on CalCoastNews. 

Blackburn said he’s concerned that such efforts have a chilling effect on the willingness of people to post comments to such websites.
 
If people felt they could no longer be anonymous, he said, “it’d be tough. Everybody would stop posting. … Anybody who had any concern about their information being sensitive in their own lives, like a whistleblower for example, would never get on.”

Managing Editor Patrick Howe can be reached at phowe@newtimesslo.com.

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