A judge in one of the nation's most brutal carjacking and murder cases has openly questioned in court whether news websites – such as those covering his trial – should be permitted to allow open and anonymous "comments" sections at the bottom of Internet-posted stories.
"I'm saying if there is a profit, there is a responsibility that goes with it," said Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner of Knox County, Tenn., to an attorney for the Knoxville News Sentinel.
"This is not the Internet. This is a site created by you in which you invite comments," the judge stated. "This is something you control."
Richard Hollow, the newspaper's attorney, argued that a court-imposed policy on the "comments" sections would be an unconstitutional infringement of First Amendment free speech rights.
"What the court is asking us to do is … set up a board of censorship," Hollow said.
The legal wrangling is part of the trial of five suspects charged in the January 2007 carjacking, rape and murder of Channon Christian, 21, and her boyfriend, Christopher Newsom, 23, in Knoxville, Tenn.
As WND reported, five defendants face nearly 50 counts of kidnapping, robbery, gang-rape, murder and theft charges after Christian and Newsom were abducted, assaulted and tortured repeatedly over a period – probably of days – before being shot and killed.
Details in the aftermath of the slayings were not widely released, leading to a flurry of speculation – much of it unfounded – on the grisly details of the crime.
Internet "comment" sections also became a hotbed of discussion with particularly racial themes, as the victims were white and alleged perpetrators black.
According to the News Sentinel, defense attorneys argued that the occasionally hostile and racially charged discussions, available online for the world to see, have made it nearly impossible to find jurors anywhere in the state of Tennessee whose minds have not been influenced by the anonymously posted comments.
Thomas Dillard, attorney for suspect George Thomas, filed a petition asking the judge to either ban media websites from allowing readers to post comments about the case or to require the news organizations to "continuously monitor, in real time" comments. Dillard asks that the websites only allow comments made under poster's actual names and only those that comments that would be deemed "printable and publishable by the news outlet personnel themselves."
Allowing anonymous, irresponsible comments to be published online, the petition argues, contaminates the jury and violates defendant's Sixth Amendment rights to a fair trial.
An attorney for WBIR-TV, which along with the News Sentinel is specifically named in the petition, argued that the "comments" sections of their websites constitute a "giant bulletin board," and as such is protected by the First Amendment.
In a related case, the Baltimore Sun reports that Maryland's high court ruled yesterday in favor of Internet "comments" section anonymity. The state's Court of Appeals judges ruled that NewsZap.com, an online forum run by Independent Newspapers Inc., doesn't have to disclose the identities of participants who critiqued the cleanliness of a Maryland Dunkin' Donuts shop, prompting a defamation lawsuit by donut store owner Zebulon Brodie.
The News Sentinel states that it does not require online commentators to reveal their identities nor does the newspaper review posts before they appear the paper's website. The comments are reviewed by staff, however, if another poster clicks the "suggest removal" link.
WBIR-TV states that its website requires a validated email address before a poster can make comments, and it does, on a limited basis, review the commentary threads. The television station also includes a feature for the "comments" community to report posts that violate a published set of content restrictions.
Judge Baumgartner, the News Sentinel reports, said he will issue a written ruling on the defense petition, but gave no stated timeline.
Thus far, only one of the five defendants charged in connection with the brutal carjacking case has been tried and convicted.