Another win for the First Amendment Clinic! On April 20, the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas denied a Motion to Authorize Discovery into the identities of anonymous commenters criticizing the Beachwood Chief of Police Katherine McLaughlin.
Chief McLaughlin and the City of Beachwood brought a defamation lawsuit that, according to comments from Councilmembers and the Beachwood City Law Director, was intended to discover whether the commenters were City employees, and to deter others from making similar comments. The First Amendment Clinic represents one of the anonymous commenters, and in February Certified Legal Interns Kennedy Dickson, Abigale Groseclose, Zach Tomi and Vincent Palumbo filed an opposition to Chief McLaughlin’s motion. Interns Dave Walters, Thad Cwiklinski, Sharaar Jamil and Taylor Mehalko also assisted on the matter.
Because there was no binding Ohio precedent regarding the standards a Court should use when de-anonymizing internet speakers, our motion argued that the Court should adopt the standard from Dendrite International, Inc. v. Doe No. 3 in the New Jersey Superior Court (2001), a leading case used by other courts to balance the First Amendment right to speak anonymously against the plaintiff’s need to identify a party who allegedly harmed them. We argued that because all of our client's speech were opinions protected under applicable law, the Court should deny the motion and refuse to allow discovery into our client's identity. Paul Levy at Public Citizen, perhaps the Country’s foremost expert on anonymous internet speech, submitted an amicus brief also arguing for application of the Dendrite standard—a standard that he pioneered in an amicus brief in that case. In denying Chief McLaughlin’s motion, the Court adopted a modified version of the Dendrite standard, and refused to allow the discovery because it found all of the speech plaintiff referenced was protected by the First Amendment.
Congratulations to all involved students for defeating this Motion in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas standing up for anonymous speech rights!