According to an article written by Jeff Swiatek in the Indianapolis Star, an Indiana judge has ruled that the state’s reporters’ shield law does not prevent two newspapers from being compelled in a lawsuit to disclose identifying information about online commenters in their Web forums.  The ruling is the first considering the application of the state’s shield law to a media entity’s online forum.

The plaintiff in the lawsuit alleges that commenters on websites run by two newspapers and a television station in Indianapolis posted harmful and false information about him.  He sought to compel the media companies to reveal technical information concerning the anonymous commenters so that he could obtain their identities and proceed in a suit against them.  Although the media organizations are not the targets of the suit, they resisted revealing the commenters’ technical identifying information.  

Like many states, Indiana has a “reporters’ shield law,” which protects reporters from being compelled by courts from revealing the identities of their sources in certain situations.   Indiana’s law states that reporters (including print, television, and radio reporters) cannot be forced to disclose the identity of the source of any information procured or obtained in the course of reporting for their employing media organization, regardless of whether the information is published/broadcast or not.  The judge ruled that the shield law does not prevent newspapers from revealing identifying information concerning commenters in their online forums (as opposed to a more traditional source).  He has not yet ruled on whether the television station must turn over information concerning the commenters as well.  

The application of state shield laws to online activities has been controversial since many of the laws, such as Indiana’s, were passed long before the development of the Internet.  Although the judge’s decision construes Indiana law, it provides an important datapoint as traditional media businesses develop approaches to privacy for online forums and state judges consider how to apply their shield laws in the Internet age.