Magazine article Editor & Publisher

'Anti-Brennan' Case Raises Legal Issues on Blog Postings

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

'Anti-Brennan' Case Raises Legal Issues on Blog Postings

Article excerpt

In what could become a landmark legal case for newspapers and Internet Service Providers across the country, nj.com has been sued for violating its privacy agreement and failure to comply with standards established by New Jersey state law -- standards that are among the most specific and far-reaching in the nation.

Chad E. Milton, one of America's top media liability experts, told me in late-February, "This type of circumstance is occurring with increasing frequency, and I believe it will become a major issue for publishers who permit anonymous postings."

On the surface, the facts in the case are straightforward, albeit filled with much small-town intrigue.

"AntiBrennan," as he branded himself, rained down such pejoratives as "Billy the Baby" and "paranoid-delusional, overpaid, underworked sicko" on his litigious arch-enemy, William J. Brennan, through much of 2005 in anonymous postings at the Teaneck board of nj.com. The site is a joint venture of 14 newspapers, including The Star-Ledger of Newark. Brennan, employed by the Teaneck Fire Department, was a frequent poster on nj.com's Teaneck message board, where he often lodged complaints against the Teaneck Council, including a councilman named Michael Gallucci.

Until early last year, AntiBrennan's true identity was a mystery. But the fireman's anger finally led him to subpoena records from nj.com concerning AntiBrennan, and, according to Brennan's attorney, nj.com readily replied. Now, AntiBrennan -- who turned out to be Councilman Gallucci -- claims (in a legal action filed in February) that this outing was a clear violation of the site's users' agreement.

How did this happen? Brennan's attorney, Jonathan Nirenberg of Resnick, Nirenberg and Siegler in East Hanover, N.J., said he "struck gold" because Gallucci's IP address included his name. This led Brennan to almost immediately post notice on the Teaneck board identifying "AntiBrennan" as Gallucci, and setting in motion a strong local reaction. Newspapers suggested that Gallucci's posted comments blaming the Teaneck fire department for the deaths of four children was the prime cause for the backlash.

Gallucci now claims that after quickly giving up his seat on the council, he was forced to move his family out of town.

His case -- which is being handled by the Washington, D.C.-based Public Citizen Litigation Group, a public interest legal organization co-founded by Ralph Nader -- rests heavily on a precedent-setting legal decision. …

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