CLEVELAND, Ohio — A liberal blog and conservative group filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday to challenge an Ohio law passed last year that prohibits internet harassment, saying it’s overly broad and infringes on the First Amendment.
The law was passed in April 2016 and went into effect in August. It says that “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.” A first-time violation of this law is considered a first-degree misdemeanor.
The lawsuit was filed by John Spinelli, creator of the liberal blog Plunderbund, and Tom Zawistowski, head of the Portage County Tea Party. The pair claims that the law’s language is overly broad and prohibits critical speech of public officials. Both groups publish information critical of public officials and their court filings say they are not covered under an exception in Ohio law provided for media outlets.
The groups are asking a judge to block the law while the case is pending and to ultimately find the law unconstitutional. It acknowledges that the groups sometimes put “invective, ridicule and strong language intended to mock, lampoon or call into question the actions, motives and public policy positions of various figures” in its articles. However, that speech is protected, and should not be subject to criminal sanctions, the suit says.
“In sum, the Plaintiffs engage in core political expression of a sort squarely within the heartland of what the First Amendment protects, and yet legitimately fear prosecution under the statute based upon the provocative and critical nature of what they publish,” the groups state in a filing asking for a preliminary injunction.
The suit, filed by UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh and Cleveland attorney Raymond Vasvari, says the law “criminalizes speech about an unwilling subject.”
The lawsuit says it is not challenging the prohibition on threatening statements posted online.
The case is assigned to U.S. District Judge Sara Lioi in Akron.
Ohio Attorney General’s Office spokesman Dan Tierney said the office has been made aware of the lawsuit and that it will respond accordingly.
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