Pundits Call Ohio Harassment Law Anti-Free Speech

(CN) – Liberal political commentators teamed up with conservative activists in a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Ohio’s new law against online harassment, claiming it criminalizes protected speech.

Plunderbund Media, John Spinelli and the Portage County Tea Party filed the lawsuit Thursday in Northern Ohio federal court against Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. Other defendants include the prosecuting attorneys for Portage and Franklin counties.

The plaintiffs are fighting a statute that the Ohio General Assembly passed last August.

It states: “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.”

The plaintiffs clarified that they were challenging the language prohibiting “abusing” and “harassing,” not “threatening.”

They also disagree with a section of the law that prohibits the use of a telecommunications device “to abuse, threaten or harass another person.”

Plunderbund is a Columbus-based blog that focuses on Ohio and national politics. Spinelli is one of its writers. The blog’s front page features a link to “a list of groups that will be actively working against Trump’s backwards and divisive agenda.”

“While its articles are carefully researched and factual, Plunderbund uses humor and ridicule to make its rhetorical points,” the lawsuit states.

The Portage County Tea Party may be on the other side of the political aisle, but it also sees the Ohio harassment law as a threat to free speech.

“Plaintiffs and their members and authors wish to engage in constitutionally protected political expression – including expression which might be considered abusing to or harassment of the subjects about whom they write – without fear of criminal prosecution,” the complaint states.

According to the lawsuit, the first violation of the law is a misdemeanor. Subsequent violations would be felonies, punishable by a fine of up to $2,500 and up to 12 months in prison.

Plunderbund, Spinelli and the Portage County Tea Party argue that the online harassment law “criminalizes speech about an unwilling subject. Attempts to block from public dissemination the flow of information regarding an unwilling subject violate the First Amendment.”

In addition to a declaration that the law is unconstitutional, the plaintiffs seek an injunction against its enforcement.

Attorney Raymond Vasvari Jr. of the Cleveland law firm Vasvari & Zimmerman is representing the plaintiffs, along with Eugene Volokh of UCLA’s Scott & Cyan Banister First Amendment Clinic.

Dan Tierney, a spokesman for DeWine’s office, said in a statement, “We were made aware of this litigation by media reports. We are reviewing the lawsuit and will respond accordingly in court.”

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