We all need to be able to hear the truth about the government, businesses and people who affect our lives.
Alexandria Goddard and the people of Steubenville, Ohio know that better than most right now.
Across the internet, from Twitter posts to Youtube videos to photo sharing sites, evidence that appears to show local high school football players raping a teenage girl has emerged online.
After perceiving a lack of police enthusiasm for investigating the case, Alexandria and other internet detectives began blogging for justice... but ran into some shocking roadblocks.
Alexandria Goddard runs the blog Prinniefied.com, providing a online forum for locals in Steubenville to share information. As the rape case became news, residents and internet activists began sharing evidence collected from the internet anonymously.
A student who was mentioned demanded to know the identities of the anonymous commentators, filing a lawsuit through his parents.
Questionable lawsuits aimed at revealing the identity of anonymous online bloggers and commenters are so common that we have a term for them: SLAPP suits, or Strategic Lawsuits Against Pubic Participation. These lawsuits attempt to censor protected speech by burdening speakers with the costs of defending themselves against frivolous claims.
That’s why our laws recognize that people have the right to speak out anonymously, so that people can share important information without fear of being attacked. Without that protection, justice and safety in our communities is at risk.
ACLU of Ohio Volunteer Attorney Scott Greenwood explained: “Technology may change, but the basic principles of free speech do not...By using the court to discover these individuals’ identity, the family was attempting to pressure them into silence.”
Here in Michigan, we've had a lot of experience with SLAPP cases. Most recently, the ACLU of Michigan successfully defended the free speech rights of an online blogger who criticized the City of Warren’s Assistant attorney. The judge rejected this attempt to silence members of the public, affirming that “free speech is the bedrock of our Constitution and our democracy.”
The ACLU of Ohio stood up for Alexandria Goddard and our right to speak out anonymously online. The lawsuit against the online journalist and anonymous commentators was dropped and weren’t required to retract any statements or stop covering the case.
In fact, it was the accused student who issued an apology, admitting his involvement in publishing photos of the young victim and even thanking the woman he sued. In his statement, the student wrote, “I also want to acknowledge the work of several bloggers, especially Ms. Goddard...in their efforts to make sure the full truth about that terrible night eventually comes out.”
Without the protections of anonymity, the potential corruption and misdeeds of the powerful would be kept quiet. We can't protect our safety or our values without being confident in the knowledge that if there's something very wrong going on, someone will have the courage and the legal support to speak up.