Friday, April 11, 2014

Compelling circumstances

Yesterday the media company known clumsily as NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune, having been denied a request for appeal, complied with a judge's order to turn over account information about two frequent commenters on its website.
“Nola.com/The Times-Picayune is committed to the idea that the constitutional rights of Internet users, including the First Amendment right to speak anonymously, should be carefully safeguarded, and that the identity of those who choose to speak anonymously should be revealed only in the most compelling of circumstances,” Lori Mince, the paper’s attorney, said in a prepared statement.
The T-P's position in this matter is laudable in principle. Although it has been pointed out elsewhere that they've been less than consistent on this point.  Right now, it seems, they're committed to objecting to having to rat out their... users? sources? content providers?.. whatever you call a newspaper commenter... to a judge. But they're being forced to do that anyway under "compelling circumstances."

In this case the compelling circumstance is that lawyers representing Stacey Jackson think that one or both of these commenters might have been a federal prosecutor publicly disparaging Ms. Jackson while they were in the process of bringing charges against her.

Many will recall Jackson was head of  the New Orleans Affordable Homeownership agency. 
The NOAH program erupted into scandal in the summer of 2008, when information emerged that many of the homes the quasi-city agency had paid to gut or board up had in fact received no attention. The scandal galvanized citizens frustrated with the city's halting recovery.

Much of their ire was aimed at Nagin, who had championed the NOAH program as a way of propping up overwhelmed nonprofits that had been providing gutting services. Nagin initially reacted defensively, holding a memorable news conference in which he blasted the reporting of Lee Zurik, then with WWL-TV and now with WVUE-TV, and accused him of impeding the city's recovery.

But the real center of the scandal was Stacey Jackson, who was NOAH's executive director and had close ties to several of the program's favored contractors.
Whether or not it ends up becoming the means by which more prosecutorial misconduct is exposed, the NOAH scandal is already a memorable event in the city's political history. Not only was it a major turning point in Nagin's relationship with the media but it also helped launch Karen Gadbois's career in investigative journalism and thus is a major reason we have The Lens today. 

Fewer will recall that Jackson was also part owner of a men's designer underwear shop called "The Him Store" but somehow that fact has become less significant with the passage of time.

Anyway, as we were saying, according to Jackson's lawyers, there is compelling reason to believe that forcing the T-P to turn over information about these anonymous commenters will lead to their being positively identified as federal prosecutors.
Whether they will ever be unmasked, however, is not clear, despite Thursday’s developments.

Keith Marszalek, Nola.com’s director of digital operations, did not respond to an emailed question Thursday about what information the website keeps on its commenters. And whether the identities of “aircheck” and “jammer1954” are even knowable may depend on how hard the two have tried to cover their tracks, experts say.
Or not.  But hey let's err on the side of suppressing free speech and a free press anyway just in case.

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