This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: October 16, 2008 - The Alton Telegraph is fighting a subpoena from a Madison County grand jury seeking the identities of anonymous Web posters who may have information about a murder case. First Amendment experts say the case could break new legal ground.
Telegraph publisher, Jim Shrader confirmed the accuracy of a report in the Belleville News-Democrat stating that the grand jury wanted information for a murder investigation in which the suspect is in custody. (News-Democrat story ) He said he could not comment further. State's Attorney Bill Mudge did not return a phone call. He told the News-Democrat that he wanted the information to "further an investigation. There's a belief that there's a particular individual who probably has some information that would further an investigation," he said.
Illinois has a strong "shield law" protecting confidential sources and unpublished information. Don Craven, attorney for the Illinois Press Association, said he was not aware of any prior case where the shield law had been used to protect an anonymous poster on the Web. He said, however, that "there is no difference between anonymous sources on the Internet and anonymous sources at the end of a telephone line." Craven does not represent the Telegraph.
Under the Illinois law, a prosecutor can defeat the reporter's privilege and obtain confidential information by convincing a judge, "that all other available sources of information have been exhausted and ... disclosure of the information sought is essential to the protection of the public interest. ..." A murder investigation would qualify as a important public interest. The key question, then, is whether the prosecutors have done everything possible to obtain the information on their own.
The newspaper's legal motion to quash the subpoena stated, "in the digital age a newspaper or reporter receiving information in this fashion is no different from anonymous tips provided to newspaper reporters telephonically or in written form."
One other new law may come into play, the state's new anti-SLAPP statute. SLAPP stands for strategic lawsuit against public participation. The law is intended to protect freedom of expression from legal intimidation. It allows those exercising their constitutional rights to seek quick dismissals of legal actions standing in the way of those rights. (To see an explanation of the law, click here .)