Ohio judge sues Cleveland Plain Dealer for $50 million after being outed as an anonymous commenter
Plenty of anonymous online commenters have filed lawsuits after being outed, but this is the first instance I’m aware of where the plaintiff is a state judge. Ohio Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold and the Cleveland Plain Dealer have had a prickly relationship for years. She has not been happy about the way the paper has covered her cases.
In 2007, an online commenter named “lawmiss” registered on the Cleveland Plain Dealer website. Since then, Lawmiss has had critical things to say on articles about cases that came before Judge Saffold, questioning the professionalism of attorneys in those cases and defending Judge Saffold’s rulings. After lawmiss made an offensive comment about the relative of one of the paper’s journalists, the journalist looked up the e-mail address linked to the account — it was Judge Saffold’s AOL e-mail. The Paper then confronted her. When it did, she and her daughter claimed that it was her daughter who had made the online comments. I was dubious of that claim when I wrote about this at Above the Law.
Judge Saffold was (understandably) pissed about being outed. Now the AP reports that she’s suing the newspaper for $50 million…
Editor of the Plain Dealer Susan Goldberg defended the decision to out Saffold during an interview with NPR’s on the Media:
BOB GARFIELD: Reporters, including The Plain Dealer, will refuse to cooperate with courts and with law enforcement in identifying an anonymous source on the grounds of reporter-source privilege. This would, I’m sure, strike some people as hypocritical in the extreme, no?
Now, what we do give to sources who give us important information in off-the-record agreements is a guarantee of anonymity. I think these are, are vastly different.
It doesn’t seem that different to me. It’s just that journalists are more beholden to their sources than to their readers (for now).
The press release about the lawsuit from Saffold’s attorney says, “The Privacy Statement on Cleveland.com provides that “personally identifying information is protected” and contains promises to ‘protect your privacy.’” Saffold is still being careful to claim that her daughter, Sydney, made all the suspiciously insightful comments on the Plain Dealer’s site, arguing that the paper violated her daughter’s privacy.
The judge is pretty knowledgeable about the law, and recognizes this lawsuit is going to be an uphill battle:
While invasion of privacy and false light claims are extremely difficult to prosecute, especially when public figures or officials are involved, the claims that we are primarily pursuing on behalf of Judge Saffold and Sydney are based on the contractual promises contained in the Privacy Statement. They made promises that they knew its users would rely on, but never intended to keep those promises.
I think the Cleveland Plain Dealer has a strong argument for why it outed Saffold. Judges are prohibited from making substantive comments about cases before them. If Saffold was behind the lawmiss comments, she definitely crossed an ethical line.
The Plain Dealer is now saying that “company officials are taking steps to block reporters and editors from seeing e-mail addresses in the future,” but I don’t think that’s going to be very reassuring to the newspaper’s other anonymous commenters.
The culture of online anonymity is changing rapidly. This cartoon is starting to look like a museum relic. On the Internet these days, it seems like everyone does know if you’re a dog.