News & Politics

Ohio Judge Rules—Shock!—That Citizens Have a Right to Criticize Government

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In 2014, Maple Heights, Ohio, Mayor Jeffrey Lansky filed a $25,000 lawsuit against Bill and Lynde Brownlee for emotional distress, claiming they used false statements to defame him on their blog, the widely read Maple Heights News. However, the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court judge that tried the case, Jose Villanueva, concluded otherwise. In his court order, the judge determined the mayor did not prove he was hurt by the blog article criticizing some of his decisions.

There are some legal nuances that might be of interest, like the fact that Lansky notified the Brownlees that a few of the statements written in their blog were false. The Brownlees corrected the text and posted a note stating so, but left the errors in as lineouts. But as Villanueva wrote in the court order, since the blog article was marked as an “editorial,” it clearly contained opinions protected as free speech.

If we stopped here in the “As Maple Heights Churns” soap opera, it wouldn’t be much of a tale, except some of the back story details are interesting. Mayor Lansky, a Democrat, and Brownlee, a Republican, are longtime political foes, and this was not the first time they met in court. Brownlee filed a federal civil rights suit against Lansky earlier in the year. Brownlee claims in his lawsuit that the mayor obtained Brownlee’s tax information from the city and used it in a flier against Brownlee related to an initiative to ban traffic cameras.

The plot only gets thicker. Over the years, Lansky has filed a number of defamation suits against other people, several of which were political opponents. Brownlee, in defending the 2014 lawsuit, used Lansky’s past ligation attempts to have a judge sanction Lansky and to declare him a “vexatious litigant” for filing meritless lawsuits meant to harass others. Although Villanueva denied the vexatious claim, he ordered the mayor and his attorney to pay $9,395 in attorney’s fees and costs to the Brownlees.

This case could be dismissed as petty local politics, unless you view Villanueva’s decision as one small victory for the Brownlees, one giant victory for free speech. As the court explained in its decision, Ohioans have the right to criticize the performance of public officials. The Court further explained that Ohioans are free to share their own conclusions about whether a particular official is ultimately responsible for certain bad outcomes, irrespective of whether that conclusion is technically correct.

The 1851 Center for Constitutional Law represented the Brownlees in the lawsuit. Maurice Thompson, executive director of the center, said in regards to the lawsuit,

When voicing their concerns over elected officials’ performance, Ohioans should not be bullied into silence for fear of an expensive lawsuit. The right to criticize an elected official’s poor performance is, as a necessary first step to those officials’ removal from office, the highest, best, and most constitutionally-protected form of free speech. It should be encouraged, rather than suppressed.

What is the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law? According to the center’s website,

 The 1851 Center for Constitutional Law is a non-profit, non-partisan legal center dedicated to protecting the constitutional rights of Ohioans from government abuse. The 1851 Center litigates constitutional issues related to property rights, voting rights, regulation, taxation, and search and seizures.

When we think of liberal organizations that claim to fight for constitutional rights, we typically think of the ACLU and their associated state branches. On the conservative side, at the national level there is the ACLJ. Furthermore, in many states, if not all states, there are a great number of smaller independent conservative organizations such as the 1851 center. These organizations often don’t get the spotlight that the big boys do, but they are in the middle of things, slugging it out in trench warfare.

Maple Heights is an old stomping ground of mine while growing up in southeast Cleveland. And besides that personal interest, there were two other interesting aspects of this story that got my attention. First, the claim that Mayor Lansky used city income tax records to disparage an opponent should be a concern to all citizens.

My current hometown of Beavercreek, Ohio, is one of the few remaining Ohio cities of its size or larger without an income tax, even though officials have tried numerous times to pass one. In the last failed city attempt at convincing voters to pass an income tax ordinance, a group of citizens, including myself, met with the city council to express our objections to the ordinance.

One objection we specifically had was that there were not enough safeguards in the law to prevent abuse of a citizen’s income tax records for political gain by city officials. Most of us had somewhat selfish motives in our concerns since we were all politically active in city affairs. Despite these real fears, many council members simply dismissed our objections.

At the national level, IRS abuses, most recently against the Tea Party and other conservative groups, have been extensively reported. At the local level, the Maple Heights case is probably not an isolated one. So whether income tax records are abused at the local, state, or national levels, they have the same chilling effect on political speech.

The second point of interest in this story is the sad fact that in the 21st century, we are still fighting for the freedom to criticize the government without the government using its relative infinite powers to harass and silence us. Why do we need a judge to remind us that, “Ohioans have the right to criticize the performance of public officials.” You can, of course, replace “Ohioans” with “Americans” in the judge’s statement.  How did it come to this?

In his 1941 State of the Union speech, President Franklin Roosevelt proposed four fundamental and universal freedoms: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. FDR’s “Four Freedoms” speech inspired a set of Four Freedoms paintings by Norman Rockwell that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post on February 20, February 27, March 6, and March 13 in 1943 respectively.

We know that with the increase in government’s scope and authority, it appears the first two freedoms are now under serious attack. Critics have argued that the third freedom, Freedom from Want, was FDR’s reference to his New Deal and other progressive/socialist programs sold as the means to ensure minimum entitlements to food, clothing, and housing. That leaves the last freedom, Freedom from Fear.

In the fourth freedom, FDR was basically referring to freedom from aggression or war. But given the size and scope of government and how our government has come to interpret other freedoms and rights, the “fear” in Freedom from Fear, for many Americans, has morphed into a fear of their own government.