Settlement Reached in Case Protecting Anonymous Speech of Online Commenters
STEUBENVILLE, OH – Today, a settlement has been announced between an online journalist, a group of anonymous commenters, and a family who filed a defamation lawsuit over a number of online statements. According to the agreement, the family will end the lawsuit against journalist Alexandria Goddard and the commenters, and a statement from one of the plaintiffs will be published by Goddard’s blog, Prinniefied.com.
In an online post announcing the settlement, Goddard wrote that no restrictions were placed on future commentary, no statements were retracted, and no money changed hands as part of the agreement. Goddard added that she was pleased that her blog was able to “provide a forum for locals in Steubenville to engage in important speech protected by the First Amendment,” and promised that it would continue to do so. ACLU of Ohio Volunteer Attorney Scott Greenwood echoed Goddard’s sentiments, saying “This decision benefits everyone involved. The commenters are able to remain anonymous, and their free speech rights have been upheld, while the family is able to share its point of view as well. In fact, this is what should have happened from the beginning—when we are confronted with speech we may not like or agree with, the answer is more speech, not less.”
The case in question, Cody Saltsman v. Alexandria Goddard, began after two teenage football players at Steubenville High School were accused of raping a female from a near-by town. Goddard, a former resident of the Steubenville area, blogged about the incident, allegedly because she felt that others involved in the incident should be charged. Others also posted online opinions about the case anonymously.
A juvenile student at Steubenville High School named Cody Saltsman was a subject of some of these postings, which alleged that he had been involved in the incident but had not been charged. 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. Through his parents, Saltsman responded with a lawsuit and a request to issue subpoenas to obtain the identity of the anonymous internet commenters. Goddard, represented by attorneys Thomas Haren of Cleveland and Jeffrey Nye of Cincinnati, then involved the ACLU of Ohio, in hopes that the organization could provide representation to other still-anonymous defendants and fully address the First Amendment implications of this cyberSLAPP lawsuit. A settlement agreement was reached on December 22, fully executed on December 26, and announced on December 27.
“Technology may change, but the basic principles of free speech do not,” said Greenwood. “Our nation was founded on the belief that people may express their views freely, even anonymously. By using the court to discover these individuals’ identities, the family was attempting to pressure them into silence. We must not allow our courts to become a muzzle for constitutionally protected speech.”