Saline County Circuit Judge Gary Arnold ruled Wednesday to set aside a motion requiring MySaline.com owner Shelli Russell to divulge information three Bryant alderman hoped would lead them to the identify of a particular blogger who writes under the alias, “The Shadow.”
The ruling to quash the motion stems from a lawsuit the aldermen filed in February against six anonymous bloggers on the MySaline. The three claimed the blogposts were “libelous and defamatory on their face.”
The suit also claimed the comments “exposed the plaintiffs, Danny Steele, Brenda Miller and Adrian Henley, "to hatred, contempt, ridicule and obloquy.”
Judge Arnold ruled that Russell could not be held responsible for revealing some of the information requested because it was posted on a website not owned by Russell. However, Arnold also said he needed additional time to consider the remaining request for information as it pertains to MySaline.com.
Tona Demers, attorney for the aldermen, has been asked by Arnold to supply arguments for compelling Russell to release the information.
Before announcing his decision, Arnold read this statement: “It is well settled that an author’s decision to remain anonymous is an aspect of the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. That protection extends to speech via the Innternet, which is a particularly effective forum for the dissemination of anonymous statements and communications.
“Discussions centered around governmental or political issues are at the core of the First Amendment. In fact, political speech is afforded the highest level of protection. Therefore, restrictions on such speech are subject to strict scrutiny and must be narrowly tailored to serve an overriding state interest. Nevertheless, the right to speak anonymously on the Internet or otherwise is not absolute and does not protect speech that would otherwise be unprotected.
“The court must consider whether the plaintiffs (aldermen) have made an adequate showing as to their claim of defamation and libel. In the case of public figures, as here, the proof must be clear and convincing that the alleged defamatory statement or statements were made with actual malice, knowing them to be false or with reckless disregard of whether they’re false or not.
“The court must therefore strike a balance. On the one hand, protection of our profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide open, weighed against the protection of a person’s reputation and standing in the community.”
Mark Hicks, attorney for Russell, said he is pleased with Arnold’s ruling. Hicks contended that "none of the statements made (on MySaline) would be libel for a private citizen, much less for public figures.”
Hicks went on to say, “Politics is a big-boy sport. If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.”
Hicks also contended that if the aldermen are successful in their efforts to learn the identity of the anonymous bloggers, the effect will “chill free speech” in the county.
Arnold dismissed a contempt of court complaint against Russell.
Arnold did not say when he will rule on the remaining issue in the motion to quash.