Federal Lawsuit Challenges Ohio’s Stalking and Harassment Laws

(CN) – An Ohio woman claimed in a federal lawsuit Monday that the state’s anti-stalking and harassment laws have made her afraid that she will be prosecuted for criticizing government officials online. 

Filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio by an unnamed citizen listed as Jane Doe, contends, the suit says parts of the state’s telecommunications harassment and menacing by stalking statutes violate the First Amendment. 

Doe named Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost and Mercer County Prosecuting Attorney Matthew Fox as the defendants and enforcers of these laws.

“The recent prosecutions of outspoken critics of the Ohio criminal justice system under these statutes have placed individuals like Jane Doe, a Dayton resident, in reasonable fear that they too will be arrested and charged with a crime if they speak out against governmental abuse,” the complaint states.

She asked the court for an injunction barring the enforcement of the disputed provisions of the statutes and a declaration that they are unconstitutional.

Doe said that she has stopped talking about local politics online, “particularly on Facebook pages that are critical of government officials, out of fear that she will be arrested and prosecuted.”

She claimed that Fox had used the statutes to prosecute two online critics of the government.

Doe said the menacing by stalking statute “expressly prohibits all forms of speech that knowingly cause mental distress to another person,” and she highlighted the section of the statute that states a person’s mental distress “may be based on words.”

Doe also noted the statute’s mention of the posting of electronic messages.

“As a result, the statute on its face labels both online speech and in-person communication, even speech that is true about another person, as conduct subject to being criminalized,” the suit states.

According to Doe, the offensive speech does not have to be sent directly to its target but could be sent through a blog, vlog or social media post.

She argues that the statute could criminalize any distressing speech, including a doctor giving a terminal diagnosis, a girl breaking up with her boyfriend via text, or a police officer or news reporter delivering tragic news. 

The maximum penalty for menacing by stalking is up to 18 months in prison for a second offense after a prior conviction.

“As such, an individual who guesses incorrectly about the legality of her online speech can face prosecution for menacing by stalking and significant periods of incarceration if convicted,” the suit states.

The telecommunications harassment law also targets indirect communications, according to the lawsuit.

“Rather, the law criminalizes online speech when it is offered with the intent to be annoying, even if the speech is posted on a generalized website not likely to be seen by the target of the expression,” the suit states.

Doe reasoned then that government officials could prosecute people whose communication they find “annoying or irritating.”

The harshest sentence for telecommunications harassment is 12 months in prison for a fifth-degree felony.

According to Doe, Fox used these statutes to charge Michigan resident Jeff Resawehr with eight counts of harassment and five counts of menacing “based on emails and blog posts in which he criticized the Mercer County Sheriff’s Office for failing to adequately investigate a potential homicide.”

Doe also noted the case of a father and mother who were charged with 62 counts of harassment and menacing for a Facebook page criticizing the fairness of his son’s trial for sexual battery of a student. 

Doe stated that she stopped commenting on the Facebook page out of fear of prosecution.

“The sole reason Doe silenced herself was out of fear that Prosecutor Fox and others would criminally charge her simply for engaging in democratic debate,” she said.

Cincinnati attorneys Jennifer Kinsley and Matt Miller-Novak are representing Doe in the case.

Neither defendant responded to an email request for comment.

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