FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Wednesday, May 17, 2017
On-line Publishers, Authors File Suit to Contest Constitutionality Of Ohio Law Criminalizing Expressions Of Protected Political Speech On The Internet
Cleveland, Ohio -- In a federal lawsuit brought by the UCLA School of Law and an Ohio attorney, three Ohio-based Plaintiffs are challenging a recently enacted Ohio law (HB 151) that purports to criminalize constitutionally protected political and other expression on the Internet on First and Fourteenth Amendment grounds.
Raymond V. Vasvari, Jr. of Cleveland has teamed up with Eugene Volokh of the Scott & Cyan Banister First Amendment Clinic UCLA School of Law to represent Tom Zawistowski, on behalf on the The Portage County TEA Party, Inc., Joseph Mismas, on behalf of Plunderbund LLC, and John Michael Spinelli, an freelance author who reports on politics in Ohio and beyond.
The three Plaintiffs and their counsel are suing, in their official capacity, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, Portage County Prosecuting Attorney Victor Vigluicci and Franklin County Prosecuting Attorney Ron O’Brien, to contest the constitutionality only of the prohibitions in HB 151 [O.R.C. § 2917.21(B)(2)], which became effective August 16, 2016.
Filed in The United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio Eastern Division, the lawsuit does not contest the prohibition in the law on threatening expression, just that part of the law against abusing and harassing speech.
The three Plaintiffs, who routinely engage in constitutionally protected speech that may be considered provocative by some, are concerned with the following clause in HB 151 as it relates to opinions they may express online about politicians and/or elected officials: “ 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.”
In their capacity as authors and publishers who write, or whose members write and disseminate through the Internet, articles and opinion pieces regarding politics generally and Ohio politics specifically, including articles that from time to time include invective, ridicule and strong language intended to mock, lampoon or call into question the actions, motives and public policy positions of various figures – including without limitation politicians, and the incumbents in and contenders for various public offices. Plaintiffs fear these articles and opinions put them at a credible risk of criminal prosecution under Section 2917.21(B)(2) as when they condemn, sharply criticize or mock government officials and other public figures - should police or prosecutors “believe” their posts were written with the purpose of abuse or harassment.
Having been the subject of, and/or witness to, acts of political, financial and personal retribution by politicians, political parties and elected officials simply for disagreeing with the “party line” or taking a public stand against their candidacy or policies, the Plaintiffs have no doubt that the politicians and elected officials will quickly move to abuse the subjective nature of this statute, using the force of law, to “punish” those citizens they view as enemies. Furthermore, the exemption of “media” from this statute is considered by the Plaintiffs to be an outrageous and audacious attempt to place Ohio’s citizens in a second class, a lower class, in regards to their 1st Amendment Rights to free speech and particularly free political speech - which must not be allowed to stand.
As enumerated in HB 151, a violation of the statute constitutes a misdemeanor of the first degree upon a first offense, and a felony of the fifth degree upon any subsequent offense. In Ohio, misdemeanors of the first degree are punishable by a fine of up to One Thousand Dollars ($1,000.00) and incarceration of no more than six months. Felonies of the fifth degree are punishable by incarceration of six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven or twelve months, and a fine not to exceed Two Thousand Five Hundred Dollars ($2,5000.00).
If Plaintiffs succeed, their prayer is for Section 2917.21(B)(2) to be ruled unconstitutionally overbroad and in violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, as made applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment.
Plaintiff Plunderbund Media L.L.C. is an Ohio corporation with its principal place of business in Columbus, Franklin County, Ohio, that publishes an internet web log under the name of Plunderbund that focuses on Ohio and national politics. Articles are carefully researched and factual and use humor and ridicule to make rhetorical points.
Plaintiff Portage County TEA Party is a not for profit Ohio corporation with members in Portage County, Ohio, who are political activists and commentators and frequently engage in robust online discussion of local, state and national politics.
Plaintiff John Michael Spinelli is currently an author for Plunderbund and publishes articles through the blog which, while factual and carefully researched, also use humor and ridicule to make rhetorical points. Mr. Spinelli has been a journalist and reporter for more than fifteen years and in that time has written thousands of articles about people, politics and government both in Ohio and nationwide.