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Do people who post comments on websites have a right to privacy?

This article fist appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 21, 2009 - At a time when newspapers are going to court to protect the identity of anonymous posters to their websites, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's director of social media took the opposite tack last week. When an anonymous poster filed a vulgar comment on the newspaper's website, Kurt Greenbaum noticed the IP address was at a local school and forwarded the offending comment to the headmaster. The school confronted asuspected employee who resigned.

Greenbaum initially reported the events in a story, "Post a vulgar comment while you're at work, lose your job." The story, which some critics saw as self-congratulatory, sparked an internet explosion briefly making Greenbaum one of the most searched names on the worldwide web.

Some commenters appreciated Greenbaum's stand on behalf of Internet decency. But most were outraged, calling him a "tattle-tale," an internet "Gestapo." By Friday, a week after the incident began, the internet hate machine was in full attack with a new website formed to "chronicle how an incompetent St. Louis newspaper reporter and busybody who didn't understand how the internet worked watched his career go down in flames." Greenbaum, in an email, declined further comment.

Post-Dispatch Deputy Managing Editor Bob Rose told KMOV-TV that rules for the website "can't be hard and fast. What do we do with racist thought? What do we do with personal attacks? However profanity really is one of the few black and whites. You can have it in or you can't have it in." KMOV quoted Rose as saying that Greenbaum may have acted "too quickly."

Neither the school nor the employee have been named. There was talk in legal circles on Friday that the employee was exploring legal options. But it would be difficult for the employee to claim his privacy had been intruded upon when he sent the offending message of his own volition, lawyers said.

The incident began on what Greenbaum called "a nice, soft Friday edition of TOTD (Talk of the Day)." Greenbaum posed the question: "What's the craziest thing you've ever eaten. And did you like it?" Greenbaum cited "Rocky Mountain oysters" as one of the crazy things he had eaten.

A commenter replied with a slang term relating to part of the female anatomy. The comment was deleted and popped up again. Greenbaum deleted it and noticed the IP address was at a local school. The school requested the offending comment and after some sleuthing by the IT department, the headmaster confronted a school employee who quit.

Greenbaum reported the events the following Monday. Some thought Greenbaum was gloating. In a follow-up posting, after the incident had begun to spread widely across the web, Greenbaum said, "That wasn't my intention. And I regret that it sounded like I was." He added that he may have overreacted because of his frustration about vulgarity on the net.

The criticism of Greenbaum ranged from internet vigilantes to his colleagues at other newspaper websites. A website set up solely to attack Greenbaum initially included his address, although that information later was taken down.

Morethoughtful criticism came from Mathew Ingram, communities editor at the Globe and Mail in Toronto. "I hope I'm not the only one who thinks that doing this goes way beyond the normal course of editorial behaviour," he wrote. "I've been moderating blog comments and story comments for several years now, both as a blogger and as the Globe and Mail's social-media editor (or communities editor, as we call the job), and there is no way that I would contact someone's workplace about a comment unless they had done something extremely egregious, such as making death threats.

"Just posting offensive comments shouldn't trigger that kind of extreme response, in my view -- even if the person posts them repeatedly. We've had hundreds or even thousands of such comments, most of which are much worse than the one Greenbaum is talking about, and I have never contacted someone's workplace, even when it was obvious that the person in question worked for the federal government."

The Greenbaum incident occurs at a time when many newspapers around the country are going to court to protect the identities of their internet posters. The papers analogize the anonymous poster to the anonymous source. They have claimed, with some success, that shield laws should allow the news organization to protect the identity of posters just as they often protect the identity of reporters' sources.

Some courts have agreed with the newspaper claims. Two Illinois courts have ruled against them. A judge ruled that the Alton Telegraph had to turn over the internet addresses of several anonymous posters who appeared to have knowledge about a murder. And, in the Chicago area, a judge has ruled that a village trustee should be told the name of "Hipcheck16" -- an anonymous poster who allegedly defamed the trustee's son around the time of a heated election.

If there is a legal issue involved in the Greenbaum case, it likely would be whether Greenbaum invaded the privacy of the poster. The verdict on the internet is a loud yes. But in a court of law the answer is probably not.

First, the poster voluntarily made the vulgar comment with attached identifying information.

Second, the Post-Dispatch's privacy policy appears to permit Greenbaum to report the posting to the school. It states: "We will not share individual user information with third parties unless the user has specifically approved the release of that information." The IP address of the origin of the comments probably would not be considered "individual user information," lawyers say.

In any event, the Post-Dispatch policy goes on to say: "We may disclose personal information ... to protect against misuse or unauthorized use of our websites or to protect the personal safety or property of our users or the public." Use of a vulgarity would qualify as misuse.

William H. Freivogel is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.

William H. Freivogel is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. Previously, he worked for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for 34 years, serving as assistant Washington Bureau Chief and deputy editorial editor. He covered the U.S. Supreme Court while in Washington. He is a graduate of Kirkwood High School, Stanford University and Washington University Law School. He is a member of the Missouri Bar.