Ohio political commentators sue over online harassment ban

Ohio political commentators sue over online harassment ban
Posted at 2:03 PM, May 17, 2017

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- A group of liberal and conservative online political commentators in Ohio has filed a constitutional challenge to the state's recently enacted law against internet harassment.

A federal lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Cleveland alleges a prohibition against knowingly posting text or audio statements or images on a website "for the purpose of abusing... or harassing another person" violates the commentators' constitutional rights to free speech and expression.

The plaintiffs in the suit are the liberal blog Plunderbund; the Portage County Tea Party, represented by well-known GOP detractor Tom Zawistowski; and John Spinelli, a freelance political reporter.

All contend they or their organizations "routinely engage" in protected speech that "may be considered provocative" and the law now subjects them to "a credible risk of prosecution."

At issue is a prohibition included in a bill expanding crimes of menacing and telecommunications harassment that unanimously cleared both chambers of Ohio's Legislature last session. Republican Gov. John Kasich signed it, and it became law Aug. 16.

UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh initiated the lawsuit. He said he and students in his First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic are always on the lookout for state laws restricting speech or expression that they believe are overreaching. He teamed up with Cleveland-based attorney Ray Vasvari, who filed the suit.

The commentators' web postings - including blog articles, opinion pieces and online discussion - often take aim at political candidates, elected officials and public offices.

The group acknowledges in the filing using "invective, ridicule and strong language intended to mock, lampoon or call into question the actions, motives and public policy positions of various figures" - figures who they allege could use the new law against them.

The suit names as defendants Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, a Republican, and two county prosecutors, Victor Vigluicci of Portage County and Ron O'Brien of Franklin County, claiming the three are in a position to bring charges under the new law simply because they "believe" certain online posts are abusive or harassing.

Messages seeking comment from them were left Wednesday with their offices.

The law also targeted web postings that are threatening, a prohibition not contested in the suit.