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    Anonymous Comments Haunt Victims of Tragedy

    Two days after her brother’s death, Brittani Stern sat down in front of her computer to read the accident reports on Newsday.com. She never thought the comments left by anonymous posters would cause her more heartache than the story.

    “There was a picture of Robert’s car getting dragged out of the water,” Stern, sister of accident victim Robert Ungerer, said. “I didn’t know there were comments until I looked at the articles,” Stern said. “I was outraged and angry that people would post such things.”

    In 2008, Ungerer’s car was found submerged in the water off Old Dock Road in Kings Park, N.Y. He and his friend Ryan Colvin were returning from a local diner when they lost control of the vehicle. The car was found the next morning. Newsday never mentioned Ungerer’s name in the reporting of the story.

    Ungerer was pronounced dead when his body resurfaced more than a month later. Although Ungerer is gone, the comments posted below news reports would live on for years on the Internet and in the minds of the family.

    Whether the rights of anonymous posters outweigh the rights of the subjects of news stories is an ongoing battle. The Civil Media Law Project shows that lawsuits involving anonymous posting in commenting forums increased 75 percent in 2007 alone.

    Stern, a 20-year old college student, feels that filing a civil suite wouldn’t be worth the struggle. All she can do is decry the “lack of respect” the people who posted the comments have.

    In the story of Ungerer’s accident, one anonymous poster wrote, “All New Yorkers please follow this guy’s lead!!! Drive into a lake!” Another commenter on the forum said, “Cars are not boats. This concept can be lost with drugs and alcohol.”

    Stern cringed when repeating a sexual reference made about her 24-year old brother in the news commenting forum. “People shouldn’t be allowed to do this.”

    The rise in number of lawsuits may compromise First Amendment rights for net users and bloggers. Anonymous user generated content is protected by the First Amendment under free speech. Due to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, no network is responsible for what is published under their site through the network users. Victims of online defamation, however, have sued news organization for libel and the release of names and IP addresses of those who have written defamatory statements.

    There has been an increase in the number of lawsuits the media is facing because of third-party content and anonymous posting, according to Lawrence G. Walters, a media law attorney.

    “Usually we worry about censorship from the right, but there has been a particularly large increase in claimant primarily from the left,” Walters, former chair of the First Amendment Law Committee, said. “We are seeing a market increase in the percentage of claims in media organizations and especially websites that offer forums or blogs.”

    Koxville Media is currently involved in a lawsuit that will weigh the First Amendment rights of Anonymous posters, and the Sixth Amendment Right to a Fair Trial.

    The Tennessee news media organization reported several stories about a current carjacking trial. The anonymous comments posted have tainted potential jurors. Of the 105,108 comments on News Sentinel Websites this year, 1,025 have been removed. The lawsuits will determine whether the IP addresses of the posters should be released and if the anonymous comments should be banned

    The story of Ungerer’s accident and the comments that follow will remain in Topix.com’s search engine for years to come. Topix.com, the commenting forum used by Newsday.com, is an “easy to use publishing system with a built-in-audience to turn passive news into active dialogue,” according to it’s “About Us” page.

    Giving readers the option to post comments was not always the norm for news providers. According to Topix.com “Visitors wanted more: they wanted to tell us what they thought about the news.”

    Today, the website uses the 2.0 model of the web to emphasize participation and blogging. According to Compscore, Topix.com reached top 25 newspaper websites in 2007 and shot to the top three, only 500 points away from beating USA Today for second place.

    “Man Found Dead in Submerged Car off Kings Park,” is the only information left online from Newsday’s reports on Topix.com. The forum has 189 comments.

    These types of comments are what David Denby, refers to as “Snark comments.” Denby, the author of the essay “Snark,” explains the difference between defamation in the press, and defamation anonymously. If someone is defamed in a newspaper, that person can call a lawyer. According to Denby, this is because “the attack is direct and present even if the author was not serious.” Denby explains, “Anonymity protects the bounder.”

    In the year since Ungerer’s death, the website developed more precaution in allowing the option to comment, according to David Lopez, the breaking news editor of Newsday. Lopez said that when the option to comment is available, “it functions as a way to provide news tips.” The freedom of speech and the option to leave an anonymous comment “gets the reader involved,” Lopez said.

    Repots of Ungerer’s death are inaccessible in the online archives, but the comments still remain. Stern will occasionally check Topix.com that is now comprised of over 500 comments about the death of her brother. Though she has not made her mark on the Internet, she posts her own anonymous comment on the back of her red Honda Civic: “Robert and Ryan, Brothers for Life.”

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