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Islander News Publisher ordered to testify in search for mysterious letter writer

A Miami judge on Friday said he would order a Key Biscayne community newspaper publisher to testify under oath about the identity of a person who wrote a letter to the editor last year, and also said that Yahoo! must turn over account information about the user. 

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The case may raise issues of press freedom for both letter writers and publishers, a criminal defense and First Amendment lawyer said. 

Circuit Court Judge Jose Rodriguez said he would order Justo Rey, the publisher of the Islander News, to testify about the identity of a mysterious letter writer named “Paul Nichols,” who penned a letter critical of former Village Council Candidate Jennifer Allegra last July 15. 

In court papers, Allegra said she wants to investigate a defamation claim, but needs to know who Paul Nichols is. Rey submitted a sworn statement saying an AOL email address was all that the paper had, but Allegra’s attorney said there are many other questions he wants the Islander publisher to answer under oath. AOL is now part of Yahoo.

“We have some reason to believe that various parts of the Islander News might know who he is,” said attorney Robert O’Donnell. “I would like to know what he knows about a man named Jorge Mendia, who appears in the metadata of Paul Nichols’ emails,” he told the court. 

A message for O’Donnell was not returned. In court, O’Donnell didn’t further clarify who he was referring to. There is a prominent Key Biscayne physician with the same name, but Dr. Jorge Mendia said Friday he has no idea who Paul Nichols is. 

Islander News attorney Rachel Fugate said Allegra’s inquiry should not be allowed to become “a fishing expedition.” 

“We’ve provided everything we have,” she told the judge. “Mr. Rey has never spoken to Mr. Nichols, and he does not have any contact number for him,” she said. 

Judge Rodriguez sided with Allegra, but also limited the questions to the issue of identity only. 

Meanwhile, an attorney for Yahoo, Nury Siekkinen, told the court that it could provide basic account information but was legally prohibited from disclosing content without a user’s consent. She said user information may not be accurate. 

News organizations sometimes resist legal demands on the grounds that such inquiries can interfere with the editorial process, or chill First Amendment rights. 

Oftentimes, the attitude is “anything they get from me, they should have to get tooth and nail,” said Norm Kent, a criminal defense attorney and publisher. 

A date for the deposition was not set, and it’s not clear if Nichols, whomever he or she might be, will attempt to intervene. Some courts have upheld a limited right to anonymity for internet users, but that issue was not discussed at Friday’s hearing. 

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Tony Winton is the editor-in-chief of the Key Biscayne Independent and president of Miami Fourth Estate, Inc. He worked previously at The Associated Press for three decades winning multiple Edward R. Murrow awards. He was president of the News Media Guild, a journalism union, for 10 years. Born in Chicago, he is a graduate of Columbia University. His interests are photography and technology, sailing, cooking, and science fiction.

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