Everyone seems to have their own story about anonymous commenters on AL.com. Apparently Speaker of the Alabama House Mike Hubbard has one, too, and he’s asking that a subpoena be sent to the anonymous parties involved, a move AL.com’s parent company Alabama Media Group says would violate the commenters’ First Amendment rights.
Hubbard is currently facing 23 felony counts of ethics violations stemming from his actions as Speaker and as chairman of the Alabama Republican Party, a position he held before his election to the House. Although his trial had already been delayed five times, Lee County Circuit Court Judge Jacob Walker denied Hubbard’s request for yet another delay in a recent hearing, leaving jury selection to begin this week.
Now another, different hearing has been added to the Lee County docket after Alabama Media Group filed a lengthy motion to quash a subpoena Hubbard’s defense has served them asking for the IP addresses and account information of two anonymous AL.com commenters who go by the profile names “noonewouldusethis” and “Reaganwasbetter.” Hubbard’s lawyers, led by attorney Lance Bell, argue that posts by the the commenters indicate they could have inside information on the case that would be relevant to Hubbard’s defense.
The subpoena specifically requests “e-mail address associated with account, account identification information, internet protocol [IP] address, any and all registration information, and any other information associated with” both “noonewouldusethis” and “Reaganwasbetter.”
Since the issuance of the subpoena, the account “Reaganwasbetter” has been permanently removed from the site, although traces remain where the commenter conversed with other users. AL.com itself even recognized the commenter “Reganwasbetter” for contributions to the site in 2014 when they remarked that the Alabama state bird should be a “Maniacally Grinning Goonie.” None of these mentions demonstrate any real relevance to the Hubbard case, though.
The account of “noonewouldusethis,” however, is a bit bigger story. The commenter’s profile — which was still up as of last week — has thousands of comments indexed on the site addressing a wide range of news issues, most in typical AL.com anonymous commenter fashion: “Bob Riley for State Parasite,” one comment reads. “One helluva odor off this,” another says.
Some of the comments made by “noonewouldusethis,” though, are a bit more interesting. In several places, the user uses first-person pronouns to refer to the Hubbard case, or in other ways makes the ethics probe seem rather personal and not just another news story. In one particular section, which Hubbard’s counsel starred as relevant to the subpoena, “noonewouldusethis” says “Court of Appeals just denied Hubbard a stay, which means we’re going to trial. All this other stuff may be moot now” (emphasis added).
Then, in another comment, “noonewouldusethis” refers to “after the way this [Hubbard] hearing went today.”
Could “noonewouldusethis” be involved in the Hubbard trial? It’s apparently something the Speaker and his defense counsel believe is worth pursuing, but something I don’t think will turn up much.
Despite the language already mentioned, most of the comments made by “noonewouldusethis” talk about Hubbard’s legal battles from the perspective of a typical liberal news junkie, not that of a political player with inside knowledge.
Although it does seem odd that “Reaganwasbetter” has been removed from the site, what traces of the account are left also seem similarly innocuous.
At any rate, Hubbard’s defense team is determined to get records for the account, and Alabama Media Group seems equally determined not to hand them over.
In a motion to quash the subpoena filed last week, AMG says Hubbard’s subpoena violates Alabama law and state criminal procedures, and would lead to a violation of the First Amendment if allowed to stand.
Alabama Media Group argues in the motion that Alabama law does not allow defendants in criminal cases to use subpoenas to fish for possible information they believe may help their case.
“Alabama law is clear,” the motion says. “A criminal defendant cannot use a subpoena to engage in informational discovery,” something Alabama Media Group’s lawyers point out Hubbard’s defense team has done before to no avail.
Alabama Media Group’s motion also says revealing the identity of the commenters would violate their First Amendment right to free speech.
“The First amendment protects the right to anonymous authorship,” the motion argues. “Courts across the country have held that anonymous speakers posting on the internet are entitled to First Amendment protection.”
Judge Jacob Walker has ordered arguments over whether the subpoena should be quashed be made in a hearing May 24, after jury selection in the trial will have begun.
Hubbard, a Republican from Auburn, was originally indicted on the 23 felonies in October 2014. Another House Representative, Greg Wren (R-Montgomery), resigned from office and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of using his office for personal gain in a related case before Hubbard was indicted. Wren agreed to testify for the prosecution in future cases in exchange for his plea deal, and has been subpoenaed by both the defense and the prosecution in the Hubbard trial. Hubbard continues to maintain his innocence.
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