Friday, December 28, 2012
No respect for the presumption of innocence?
Some football players in an Ohio town have been accused of sexual assault by online writers and the police have now taken up the case and issued a prosecution against some of the players. The online writers have however exposed themselves to accusations of defamation and -- in the event of a failure of the case in court -- could be liable in a damages claim. The ACLU has however defended the defamatory comnments as free speech, despite clear legal precedents that defamation and libel are not protected free speech
If all the football players at the party concerned either denied wrongdoing in court or simply "took the 5th", the lawsuit would almost certainly collapse -- so a defamation case against the commenters would be likely to succeed, ACLU or no ACLU.
There is the additional problem that extensive pre-trial allegations of guilt could well be held to be "prejudicial" to the sexual assault prosecution and cause the prosecution to be abandoned -- which would again leave the commenters legally vulnerable. Clearly, agitation for the alleged sexual assault to be investigated should not have named names.
A Steubenville sexual assault case that divided the football-centric town this summer has also sparked a First Amendment debate over the sharp opinions shared online about some of the student athletes who were rumored to be involved.
Should people who comment online anonymously be held legally responsible for what they say? Or, are online comments protected free speech?
Steubenville football player Cody Saltsman and his parents, Johna and James, sued a blogger and up to 25 anonymous online commenters in October, saying they made false and defamatory statements about the teen on a website. The Saltsmans asked a local judge to prevent the blogger and others from making any more statements about them and to remove the ones already posted.
Jefferson County Common Pleas Judge David Henderson has yet to decide on those issues but he did grant a motion to allow Internet service-providers to reveal the identities of the commenters, who only used screen names.
Regarding the matter of people speaking anonymously online, various free speech advocates, including the Ohio chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, have stepped in to defend the rights of the commenters.
Scott Greenwood, a constitutional and civil rights lawyer who volunteers with the ACLU, said most of the unidentified commenters are taking the ACLU up on its offer for representation.
"In this case there has been a lot of public discussion of ugly stuff that happened in Steubenville earlier this year," Greenwood said. "This case is designed to shut down the discussion and criticism."
Greenwood said if the commenters' identities are revealed their speech would be "chilled."
Saltsman, a high school junior, has not been charged with a crime. But blogger Alexandria Goddard and regular visitors to her website seized on photos Saltsman posted from the night of the reported attack and vulgar jokes he made about it afterward.
In August, Goddard told The Plain Dealer that she started her own investigation because she didn't trust local authorities to do the right thing.
Eventually, state prosecutors took over the case and two 16-year-old football players are set for trial in juvenile court on rape charges in February. One also faces a charge related to nude photos of the 16-year-old victim found on his phone.