Judge Gives Online Newspaper Opinion Posters Protection Under Constitution
By The Raleigh Telegram
Monday, August 2, 2010
RALEIGH - A judge’s ruling in a pre-trial motion involving a Gaston County murder
case affirms that First Amendment protection extends to those who make anonymous
comments about stories on news websites.
Attorneys for Michael Mead had sought to force The Gaston Gazette to reveal information
that could have been used to help reveal the identity of an anonymous commenter on
the news organization’s website.
But Superior Court Judge Calvin Murphy ruled Tuesday to nullify the request, siding
with The Gaston Gazette that such information remains protected by the First Amendment
and state’s journalism shield laws.
This marked the first such ruling in North Carolina courts, said attorney John Bussian,
who represents The Gaston Gazette.
“Judge Murphy’s decision recognizes the principle in North Carolina law that, absent
unusual circumstances, the media can’t be forced to disclose information about how
they manage comments on news reports posted to their websites,” Bussian said. “Courts
in other states have protected free press rights this way for a while. But this is
the first time a judge in North Carolina has done it. It’s a landmark ruling.”
Mead, 31, of York County, S.C., faces a death penalty trial for the July 16, 2008,
killing of Lucy Johnson.
Johnson, a 31-year-old single mother of two, was found inside her burning house in
the Country Meadow subdivision off Lowell-Bethesda Road between Cramerton and Gastonia.
She had been fatally shot in the head before the start of the fire, according to
an autopsy report.
Johnson, a nurse in Kings Mountain, was 15 weeks pregnant at the time of her death,
and Mead has said he was the father of the unborn child.
News stories since Mead’s arrest in January 2009 and his subsequent court hearings
generate dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of online comments after appearing on GastonGazette.com.
But attorneys for Mead were interested in the identity of one anonymous commenter
who revealed information about a court date related to a bond revocation prosecutors
sought in regard to a polygraph test.
The information the commenter disclosed had not been made public yet. The commenter
also made a statement that Judge Eric Levinson was “itching” to return Mead to jail
to await trial.
Levinson denied he had made any decision regarding Mead’s pre-trial release at a
June hearing, stating if he thought Mead was a danger to the public he would already
be in custody. Levinson made a preliminary ruling that The Gazette was covered by
the state’s shield laws, but left the final decision up to Murphy because of a scheduling
conflict, which will take him away from the case, he said.
Forcing The Gazette to reveal information leading to the identity of a commenter
would have a “chilling effect” on anonymous online speech on The Gazette’s website,
News organizations have a valid argument to protect themselves under the state’s
shield laws as they attempt to generate public commentary about government officials,
the trial and other events, Bussian argued.
Mead’s attorney, Lisa Dubs of Hickory, said she would not comment on the case outside
At the June 28th hearing, Dubs argued that the speech of an anonymous commenter does
not meet the definition of a journalist and therefore does not deserve protection.
Another of Mead’s attorneys, Jason White, argued the commenting section of The Gazette’s
website was more of a social network than a news gathering operation.
Mead remains free on a $650,000 bond while he awaits trial, which could take place
in May, according to Tuesday’s court hearing.
Judge Murphy denied a request from prosecutors to revoke Mead’s bond.
A Sept. 27 hearing has been scheduled in the case to discuss a change of venue for
the trial sought by defense attorneys, who argue pre-trial publicity would prevent
a fair trial.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: This article was written by Kevin Ellis of The Gaston Gazette and
was reprinted with the permission of Barry Bridges, Gaston Gazette. The Gaston Gazette
is available online at www.gastongazette.com
A new superior court ruling in North Carolina means that online posters at newspaper
websites have more protections than previously seen in state cases, as he denied
a request to reveal the identities of people who had commented on a murder trial
in Gaston County, North Carolina. File photo of online newspaper by The Telegram.
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