When public officials try to silence criticism

Posted by on Jan 11, 2016 in Political U[niversity] | 0 comments

quietIt is human nature. People don’t like to be criticized. However, those who hold public office must accept criticism as part of holding office. We have the right (and the duty) to hold our officials accountable for respecting our rights and spending our tax dollars wisely.

Usually, the way public officials try to hide from accountability is to persuade the legislature to frame sunshine laws as narrowly as possible, and by passing laws limiting public (including journalist) access to public records.

However, there are occasions when public officials make a more egregious attempt to silence criticism.

In November, Jeff Lansky, the mayor of Maple Heights, Ohio, tried to sue two of his constituents for more than $25,000 when they questioned his job performance on their blog. The couple, Bill and Lynda Brownlee wrote a short web article in the summer of 2014 questioning whether Mayor Lansky had kept his campaign promises and questioning his tax and spending policies. The report emphasized that “the article strictly addressed the Mayor’s policies, and did not use insulting or harsh language.”

In a 27-page judgment entry, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Jose Villanueva ruled that Ohio public officials cannot prevail in lawsuits solely because of political speech. Noting that expressions of opinion are protected under the First Amendment and Article I, Section 11, of the Ohio Constitution, the judge observed that the statements were clearly labeled “opinion” and were included in a blog designed to elicit opinions from the residents of Maple Heights. Judge Villanueva ruled that an opinion piece critiquing events in the city during the mayor’s current term “is not actionable in defamation.” He further rejected claims of “emotional distress” by stating that “the defendants’ conduct in writing and publishing the Article constituting political commentary does not rise to the level of conduct necessary to prove [that claim].”
The 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, who represented the Brownlees in court, have filed a motion to declare Mayor Lansky a “vexatious litigator” and seeks sanctions against both the mayor and his attorney (who was recently arrested for introducing frivolous lawsuits elsewhere). Separate hearings have been scheduled to hear those issues.

Personal injury lawyer Alan James Brinkmeier (in Chicago) answering a question on this subject, writes:

A public official can only prevail on this type of claim if the statement is made or the words are published despite knowing them to be false or with reckless disregard for the truth (malice). That is a very difficult level of proof in a case. It is an extremely high burden of proof on the plaintiff – as a public official – to establish.

This standard comes from a famous 1964 decision by our Supreme Court called New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, (376 U.S. 254 [1964]). Our Supreme Court announced the actual malice standard which has to be met before reports about public officials or public figures can be considered to be defamation.

Any activist who is sued for telling the truth is on very strong legal ground. If the activist cannot afford an attorney, they should seek the help of local advocacy organizations like Ohio’s 1851 Center to assist.

Tell us your story

Do you have any stories of public officials trying to silence opinion in your community? Share them with us in the Comments section below.

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