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ACLU offers to represent bloggers

December 16, 2012
By MARK LAW - For The Weirton Daily Times (mlaw@heraldstaronline.com) , Weirton Daily Times

STEUBENVILLE - The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio announced Friday it has offered to represent a number of anonymous defendants in a lawsuit in Jefferson County Common Pleas Court concerning the blog postings about a juvenile rape case investigation.

Cody Saltsman and his parents, James and Johna Saltsman, filed the lawsuit and injunction in connection with comments made on the blog prinniefied.com, operated by Alexandria Goddard, address unknown, in connection with a rape investigation.

The Saltsmans are seeking an injunction to have alleged false and defamatory statements removed from the blog site. The family also is seeking monetary damages and a public apology.

Common Pleas Judge David Henderson at the end of November ruled that the Saltsmans" attorney, Shawn Blake, can issue subpoenas to find out the identities of anonymous people who made blog posts in connection with a rape investigation involving two Steubenville High School students and athletes.

Blake has obtained the Internet protocol addresses of the persons who made the posts on the blog site. Henderson said Blake can issue subpoenas to Comcast Cable, MI-Connection, AT&T, Cincinnati Bell and Verizon to obtain information related to the Internet protocol addresses.

Henderson said the anonymous persons should be notified of the pending discovery and given the opportunity to file court actions to quash the subpoenas.

Goddard hasn't been served with the lawsuit and the motion for an injunction can't proceed until she is located, served with papers and appears in court. Goddard is represented by attorney Thomas Haren of Independence. Haren has refused to tell Henderson where Goddard is located, claiming attorney-client privilege.

Blake has hired private investigators to find Goddard, but they haven't been successful.

Blake has filed an amended complaint listing 11 "John Doe" defendants who posted comments on the blog site which the Saltsmans' claim are defamatory. Blake voluntarily dismissed four "John Does" from the initial lawsuit. Blake did not list the reason for the dismissal.

"We believe the real goal of this lawsuit is to discover the identity of anonymous online commenters so that they, and future commenters will be intimidated and discouraged from voicing their opinions," said Scott Greenwood, an ACLU volunteer attorney. "This is just an updated form of a classic Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) which is typically used to silence speech that is protected under the First Amendment."

Goddard's attorney contacted the ACLU of Ohio, so the organization could provide representation to other still-anonymous defendants and address the First Amendment implications of this lawsuit, Greenwood said.

"If subpoenas are honored and the identities of these commenters are revealed, the First Amendment damage is done," said Greenwood. "Even if the lawsuit is ultimately unsuccessful, the plaintiff will have discouraged others in this small community from engaging in online conversation which they believed to be anonymous. This would have serious implications for other forms of anonymous free speech on the Internet."

Greenwood said the case began after two teenage football players at Steubenville High School were accused of raping a female. Goddard, a former resident of Steubenville, blogged about the incident, allegedly because she believed that others involved in the incident should be charged. Others also posted online opinions about the case anonymously, he said.

Cody Saltsman, a Steubenville High School student, was a target of some of these postings, which alleged that he had been involved in the incident but had not been charged, Greenwood said. Additional postings mentioned other football players and focused on suggestions that some of the people involved in the rape were not charged and should be brought to justice, he said.

The Saltsmans' lawsuit lists the following anonymous persons who had the blog user names of mammabear, 3angelsmommy, concernedmom123, completelyunbelievable, AbbyLane, DM, lakindo, Pete Basil, madgrandma, HEARTSICK and Scott.

Marian Waguespack of Collierville, Tenn., has come forward as the person with the user name of AbbyLane. She is being represented by Steubenville attorney Francesca Carinci.

A hearing is scheduled for Monday before Henderson on Blake's request to file an amended complaint.

The amended complaint also includes the allegation that Goddard is destroying evidence located on the computer servers that hosted her blog. Blake claims that Goddard after the filing of the lawsuit deleted her blogs from the computer servers at hostgator.com in Houston and moved them to Koddos.com located in Hong Kong, China.

Blake in the amended complaint said the removal of the data to an offshore hosting server has eliminated the best evidence of defendants' identities and their defamatory statements, thereby damaging the Saltsmans' abilities to prove the claims. Blake is seeking punitive damages because of the move.

(Law can be contacted at mlaw@heraldstaronline.com)

 
 

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