Court: Ohioans Have Right to Criticize the Performance of Public Officials
Maple Heights Mayor sued to silence local bloggers for “defamation” and “emotional distress,” and violated their right to free speech in doing so
Columbus, OH – An Ohio Court late Friday dismissed the case of a Cleveland-area Mayor who sued a local family for “an amount in excess of $25,000” after they questioned his job performance on their blog.
The 1851 Center for Constitutional Law’s victory on behalf of Bill and Lynde Brownlee, husband and wife, and their small-town news website, Maple Heights News, reaffirms the principle that citizens’ criticisms of their government officials cannot be silenced when those officials file lawsuits for “defamation” and “intentional infliction of emotional distress,” as Mayor Jeff Lansky had attempted here.
The ruling should provide considerable help to both mainstream news outlets and alternative politically-minded journalists and organizations.
The Brownlees had written a short web article in the summer of 2014 questioning whether the Mayor had kept all of his campaign promises, and further questioning his tax and spending policies. The article strictly addressed the Mayor’s policies, and did not use insulting or harsh language.
In a 27-page Judgment Entry affirming that Ohio public officials cannot prevail in lawsuits merely in response to political speech, Judge Jose Villanueva of the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas held as follows:
- “Public discussion of public officials is a fundamental principle of the American form of government, and thus a primary purpose of the First Amendment is to encourage self-government by permitting comment and criticism of those charged with its leadership.”
- “Expressions of opinion are generally protected under Section 11, Article I of the Ohio Constitution as a valid exercise of freedom of the press [and] an alleged defamatory statement is not actionable if the statement constitutes political opinion speech protected by absolute immunity.
- The statements were obviously opinion because “the Article is labeled ‘editorial’ and appeared in the ‘editorial’ section of a Website created for the avowed purpose of giving voice to the residents of Maple Heights. . . labeling a statement as ‘editorial’ puts readers on notice that the statements constitute the writer’s opinions.”
- “A reasonable reader would arguably understand the Article as an opinion piece critiquing events in the city during the Mayor’s current term . . . This type of statement is not actionable in defamation.”
- As to the Mayor’s “emotional distress” claim, “the defendants’ conduct in writing and publishing an Article constituting political commentary does not rise to the level of conduct necessary to prove [that claim].
The Court further explained that Ohioans are free to share their own conclusions about whether a particular official is ultimately responsible for certain bad outcomes, irrespective of whether that conclusion is technically correct: “It is not unreasonable to attribute actions or events that occur during a Mayor’s administration directly to the Mayor, despite the fact that others were also involved in carrying out the actions or events . . . and the Brownlees reasonably believed that the events and actions discussed in the Article could be attributed to Mayor Lansky. . . Merely because Mayor Lansky disagrees with their interpretation of the facts does not amount to actual malice.”
“When voicing their concerns over elected officials’ performance, Ohioans should not be bullied into silence for fear of an expensive lawsuit,” explained Maurice Thompson, Executive Director of the 1851 Center. “The right to criticize an elected official’s poor performance is, as a necessary first step to those officials’ removal from office, the highest, best, and most constitutionally-protected form of free speech. It should be encouraged, rather than suppressed.”
To emphasize the need to deter such lawsuits in the future, the 1851 Center’s defense of the Brownlees includes a counterclaim to declare Mayor Lansky a “vexatious litigator,” and seeks sanctions against both the Mayor and his lawyer, Brent English, who was recently arrested for frivolous litigation elsewhere. The Court indicated that separate hearings would now be held on those matters.
One prominent undercurrent to the case concerns whether political comments on citizen websites are entitled to the same level of protection as mainstream newspaper, television, and radio media. The Court stressed that under the Ohio Constitution, which is more protective of free speech, “internet” speech is almost always likely to be viewed as “opinion,” and therefore immune from lawsuits for defamation and emotional distress. The Ohio Constitution guarantees “[e]very citizen may freely speak, write, and publish his sentiments on all subjects,” and “no law shall be passed to restrain or abridge the liberty of speech, or of the press.”
Read the Court’s Order HERE
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