Lawsuit challenges Ohio internet harassment law, claiming it stifles criticism of public officials

Lawsuit challenges Ohio internet harassment law, claiming it stifles criticism of public officials

A lawsuit filed Tuesday says Ohio's internet harassment law is overly broad.

By Eric Heisig, on May 17, 2017 at 9:54 AM, updated May 17, 2017 at 4:09 PM

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- A liberal blog and conservative group filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday to challenge an Ohio law passed last year that prohibits internet harassment, saying it's overly broad and infringes on the First Amendment.

The law was passed in April 2016 and went into effect in August. It says "no person shall knowingly post a text or audio statement or an image on an internet web site or web page for the purpose of abusing, threatening or harassing another person." A first-time violation of this law is considered a first-degree misdemeanor.

The lawsuit was filed by the liberal blog Plunderbund, the Portage County Tea Party. Also included as plaintiffs are John Spinelli, who frequently writes for Plunderbund, and Tom Zawistowski, head of the Portage County Tea Party.

The plaintiffs claim the law's language is overly broad and prohibits critical speech of public officials. Both groups publish opinions critical of public officials and their court filings say they are not covered under an exception in Ohio law provided for media outlets.

The groups are asking a judge to block the law while the case is pending and to ultimately find the law unconstitutional.

It acknowledges that the groups sometimes put "invective, ridicule and strong language intended to mock, lampoon or call into question the actions, motives and public policy positions of various figures" in its articles. However, that speech is protected and should not be subject to criminal sanctions, the suit says.

"In sum, the Plaintiffs engage in core political expression of a sort squarely within the heartland of what the First Amendment protects, and yet legitimately fear prosecution under the statute based upon the provocative and critical nature of what they publish," the groups state in a filing asking for a preliminary injunction.

The suit, filed by UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh and Cleveland attorney Raymond Vasvari, says the law "criminalizes speech about an unwilling subject."

The lawsuit says it is not challenging the prohibition on threatening statements posted online.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien and Portage County Prosecutor Victor Vigluicci are also named as defendants. The case is assigned to U.S. District Judge Sara Lioi in Akron.

Ohio Attorney General's Office spokesman Dan Tierney said the office has been made aware of the lawsuit and will respond accordingly.

The bill that passed last year was put forth by Rep. Marlene Anielski, a Walton Hills Republican. It was inspired by Broadview Heights resident Lori Siwik, who said she and her family were victims of harassment and stalking in 2005 and 2006.

Siwik said a neighbor created a website to harass her and her husband. Siwik said police told her there was nothing they could do.


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