An Akron federal judge on Wednesday threw out a lawsuit filed by liberal blog Plunderbund and the Portage County Tea Party that challenged an Ohio internet harassment law.
The lawsuit, filed in May, challenged a law passed in April 2016 that 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.
Plunderbund and the Portage County Tea Party claimed the law’s language is overly broad and infringes on the First Amendment by prohibiting critical speech of public officials. Both groups publish criticism of public officials online and their court filings say they are not covered under an exception in Ohio law provided for media outlets.
U.S. District Judge Sara Lioi, however, wrote that the plaintiffs, which also includes Plunderbund writer John Spinelli and Portage County Tea Party head Tom Zawistowski, did not say they intend to violate the law as written.
The law “does not expressly prohibit or proscribe political expression,” nor does it bar statements online that criticize or mock government officials or public figures, she wrote. Rather, the law only prohibits online speech posted specifically to abuse or harass someone.
Lioi wrote that the plaintiffs lack standing to challenge the law because they did not show they intended to post things that expressly violated the law. They also didn’t show a reasonable fear they would be prosecuted for violating the law, the judge wrote.
The law was sponsored by Ohio 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.
The Ohio Attorney General’s Office, which defended the law in court, “agrees with the decision and is pleased with this outcome,” spokesman Dan Tierney said.
Eugene Volokh, a University of California, Los Angeles law professor representing the plaintiffs, said he will likely appeal Lioi’s decision.
He said the judge dismissed the suit on procedural grounds and left open the issue of whether a prosecutor may find posts from his clients to be abusive or harassing.
“My clients know what they are writing is written with good intentions,” Volokh said. “It’s hard to tell how somebody else would perceive it.”