In early November I put up the Popehat Signal seeking help for a blogger and anonymous commenters sued in connection with their statements about a rape case in Ohio. Many people figured out that I was talking about a rape prosecution involving members of a high school football team in Steubenville, Ohio, and a defamation suit brought by a teen named Cody Saltzman and his parents. The rape case, the defamation case, and the controversy surrounding them have now been covered in the New York Times.
I'm happy to report a good result made possible by the contributions of dedicated lawyers.
Alexandria Goddard, who blogs at Prinnified and was the lead defendant in the defamation case, reports that the case has been settled as to all parties and will be dismissed.
On behalf of myself and the John Doe defendants, we are very pleased to announce that the defamation lawsuit filed against us has been dismissed with prejudice. Dismissals with prejudice mean that this case can never be refiled again and this lawsuit is officially over. On December 20th, the plaintiffs approached us about settling this case, and we were quite happy to oblige. Lawsuits are costly and very stressful, and this suit has taken a toll on all involved. As part of the settlement we did not pay any money; we did not agree to retract any statements, nor did we agree to stop covering the case or discussing it.
Goddard offers a clarification that Prinnified never had any information that Saltzman took part in the rape alleged in the criminal case, and Saltzman offers an apology for his repulsive social media coverage of his classmates mauling a drunk child.
This is a tremendous victory for Goddard, for the anonymous commenters, and for free speech values. Congratulations and admiration are due to the following:
Jeffrey M. Nye and Thomas G. Haren were among the first to respond to the Popehat signal and quickly took up Goddard's defense. They were ably assisted by my friend and colleague Marc Randazza, who is familiar around these parts.
The ACLU of Ohio, through attorney Scott Greenwood, stepped in to assist additional anonymous commenters in the case.
In addition, many additional attorneys and citizens wrote in response to the Popehat Signal offering to help.
A few thoughts and observations:
1. If the purpose of the defamation suit was to protect the reputation of Cody Saltzman and his parents, it was a catastrophic error in judgment. The suit invoked the Streisand Effect in full force and was very likely the catalyst that drew the attention of both the New York Times and (in more troubling fashion) hackers under the Anonymous banner.
2. Ohio doesn't have an anti-SLAPP statute. Nor do many states. Others have woefully deficient anti-SLAPP statutes. Goddard and the commenters here were very fortunate to get swift and highly effective pro bono help, without which they faced lengthy and ruinously expensive litigation. Most defendants in censorious defamation suits are not so fortunate. What can you do? You can lobby for effective anti-SLAPP laws in your state, lobby for a federal anti-SLAPP statute (various versions have been kicking around Congress for years), and help to publicize calls for pro bono counsel in cases like this one. As it stands, in states without effective anti-SLAPP statutes, the legal system does not prevent or deter censorship by lawsuit.
3. The First Amendment protects a very broad range of commentary about the Steubenville rape case and its participants. However, when it comes to government action, the accused — as well as the other young men who were not charged — are entitled to due process of law. Period. They are not less entitled to due process because you're horrified by what they are accused of, or because of allegations that they are being protected by corrupt locals. Supporting due process of law for people accused of despicable crimes is a civic value just as important as supporting freedom of expression for people whose speech infuriates you. Degrading one value tends naturally to degrade the other.
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