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Court case sets boundaries on anonymity

The outcome of an Ohio Supreme Court case brought by one of Ohio’s largest newspapers establishes statewide precedent for Ohio courts on when someone may file a lawsuit anonymously.

The case involved a plaintiff — a Cincinnati area police officer — who sought to remain anonymous in the defamation suit he filed against people he said publicly labeled him as a racist.

But as most journalists would argue, openness is key, and the courts should not randomly allow an accuser to file suit anonymously. Accused have the right to face and name their accusers, and the public should have the the right to know who is bringing action in the courts.

It is the United States Constitution that dictates courts must be open to the public. That openness ensures that democratic ideals of transparency and accountability are maintained.

This case, brought by the Cincinnati Enquirer, was recognized recently by the Ohio Associated Press Media Editors organization during the annual awards banquet in Columbus. The work was selected as the winner of the state’s “First Amendment Award,” as a distinguished contribution on behalf of the First Amendment or Freedom of Information. The Enquirer was recognized for “committing all necessary resources to overcome obstacles on behalf of the unrestricted flow of information vital to a free society.”

In their legal argument in favor of openness, the Enquirer and UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh challenged a Hamilton County judge’s decision that would have allowed the plaintiff, ultimately identified as Cincinnati police officer Ryan Olthaus, to anonymously proceed in his defamation suit against people who had accused him of being racist.

The scenario that led to the lawsuit’s filing unfolded around the time that protests were happening nationwide in the wake of the death of George Floyd, killed by police in Minneapolis.

Protesters in Cincinnati accused Officer Olthaus of using a white supremacy hand signal while providing crowd control during a city council meeting in that city. The officer denied that. Derogatory social media posts about the officer followed, portraying him as a white supremacist.

Ultimately, Olthaus anonymously filed a defamation suit in July 2020 against those making the public statements about him. The Cincinnati Enquirer argued against the anonymity in a legal battle for openness and transparency.

In the end, the Ohio Supreme Court sided in February with the newspaper and ordered that the plaintiff’s name be unsealed and kept on the records.

In the ruling, the justices stated that while people can sue under a pseudonym in rare instances where retaliation is likely, they unanimously ruled that Olthaus’ case does not meet those standards. The threats against him presented to the Supreme Court were not severe enough to warrant the anonymous proceedings.

At the end of the day, this case establishes statewide precedent for Ohio courts governing when they may permit someone to be a party to a case anonymously.

“A plaintiff seeking to proceed anonymously for fear of retaliation must show that the filing of the lawsuit causes a risk of retaliation,” the justices wrote. “(Olthaus) did not establish that causal connection; he did not show that any risk of harm against him or his family would increase if he were required to prosecute his lawsuit using his name.”

Under that new precedent, the court may excuse plaintiffs from identifying themselves in a civil case only when the court determines the individual’s privacy interests substantially outweigh the presumption of open judicial proceedings.

The openness of court proceedings always is critical. Through their ruling, Ohio’s high court justices have reinforced that fact. They also set limits on opportunities for plaintiffs to proceed anonymously.

Undoubtedly, some will disagree with this Supreme Court decision. Olthaus’ lawyer said in news reports that his client’s privacy was “tortiously violated” and that the defendants Olthaus is suing had acted with “actual malice.” The Enquirer reported that attorneys for those defendants said calling a person racist are comments protected by the First Amendment.

Olthaus’ civil suit continues and its outcome will be closely watched.

Agree or not, I believe the Cincinnati Enquirer fulfilled its responsibility in raising the issue and fighting for openness and transparency. Americans always are better off when openness prevails.

blinert@tribtoday.com

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