In a First Amendment case that had big implications for the future of online journalism, the New Hampshire Supreme Court said freedom of the press is a fundamental right that extends beyond newspapers and periodicals to any kind of publication that serves as a vehicle for information and opinion.
For the first time, New Hampshire’s high court set a precedent for deciding whether websites can be forced to release the identity of online commenters. It instructed lower courts to weigh the media’s right to protect sources more heavily than the plaintiff’s concerns in lawsuits over defamatory comments made online. Similar precedents have been set in other states [Ashley Smith, "Court Backs Website on Free Speech," Nashua Telegraph, 2010.05.07].
The ruling addresses a case that covers exactly the situation South Dakota's legislators wanted to regulate: a pseudonymous blog commenter accused a mortgage company president of fraud, and the company demanded the website identify the commenter. The high court's ruling does not give nameless commenters free rein, but it does say the mortgage company doesn't get free rein to prosecute perceived defamation. New Hampshire's supremes have told the lower court to reconsider the case, this time viewing the website as a member of the press with full First Amendment right to protect the identity of its anonymous sources.
When the Founding Fathers used the word press, they weren't thinking of professional reporters and publishers pretending to objectivity. They were thinking of pamphleteers and other rabble-rousers like Thomas Paine and Alexander Hamilton who got hold of a press and published their arguments.
If you're reading this, you have a press at your fingertips. Just like government, the press is us. Use it wisely.