Judge Sues ‘Plain Dealer’ Over Privacy Policy ‘Conspiracy’

By: Shawn Moynihan

Cuyahoga County Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold has sued The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, claiming the paper violated a Web site privacy policy in late March by revealing that a series of online comments made by an anonymous poster was linked to the judge?s e-mail address.

Common Pleas Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold and her daughter, Sydney, seek some $50 million in damages for what the lawsuit describes as a conspiracy to publish confidential information used to register the username ?lawmiss? on cleveland.com.

Filed in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, the suit claims that newspaper violated the privacy policy of its site by printing personally identifying information.

The newspaper looked up lawmiss? username information after someone using that handle posted an inflammatory comment about the mental state of a relative of reporter Jim Ewinger. The paper reported that comment violated the site?s community rules, which do not allow personal attacks.

An online editor was able to discover lawmiss? e-mail address, as cleveland.com users are required to register with a valid e-mail before posting comments. Editors discovered that the user had also offered opinions on three of Judge Saffold?s cases — including two death-penalty cases, one of which was the capital murder trial of accused serial killer Anthony Sowell.

Plain Dealer Editor Susan Goldberg confronted Judge Staffold with the information, and the judge denied responsibility for the posts. However, her 23-year-old daughter later came forward to accept responsibility for posting ?quite a few, more than five? of more than 80 lawmiss comments.

The paper reported its findings, which ignited debate over protection of privacy as it relates to anonymous posting on newspaper Web sites.

Plain Dealer Editor Susan Goldberg and Brian Spitz, Saffold?s attorney, declined to comment to the paper Wednesday about the case. In the suit, Spitz accuses the newspaper’s online editors of investigating the lawmiss user registration information as a vendetta, after the remark left about reporter Jim Ewinger?s relative.

“Despite encouraging lively debate and opposing opinions, Defendants used tactics to discourage comments that opposed their editorial viewpoint, including, but not limited to selectively removing opinions that were not favorable to Defendants, and allowing personal attacks against their targets to remain,” Spitz says in the suit.

According to a report by the Plain Dealer Thursday, the suit also expects the defendants to identify all anonymous commenters who criticized Saffold on cleveland.com. The suit identifies those commenters as ?John Does? and says they, too, are defendants.

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