Updates to the Outed Judge-Commenter’s Lawsuit Against the Plain Dealer — Saffold v. Plain Dealer

[Post by Venkat]

I posted a while ago on the lawsuit brought by Judge Saffold against the Plain Dealer newspaper where she alleges the newspaper improperly outed her as a commenter in breach of its privacy policy.

A few updates:

1. Judge Saffold Removed: Judge Saffold was presiding over a serial murder case, and among other things, she was accused of making comments about case on the Plain Dealer’s website. At the defendant’s request, she was removed from the case.

2. Comments by “lawmiss” on Other Sites: The Plain Dealer reports (in a detailed article) that a commenter with the same username as Judge Saffold (“lawmiss”) made comments on other sites, including those that allegedly “target Arabs, Asians, others.”

3. A Second Username for Judge Saffold?: The Plain Dealer (again) reports that “other commenters on cleveland.com have noted a similarity between the lawmiss comments and postings under the username ‘governmentwatcher.’”

4. Judge Saffold’s Unpaid Parking Tickets: The Plain Dealer also reports that Judge Saffold has over $1000 in “fines and late fees for city of Cleveland traffic and parking tickets.” (via Volokh Conspiracy)

5. Judge Saffold’s Work Computers Removed: The Plain Dealer subpoenaed Judge Saffold’s work computers which were removed from her chambers.

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The Plain Dealer, which reported on all of these stories, seems to be engaged in a media war against the judge. To me, this just highlights the tricky situation the Plain Dealer was in in the first place, by having access to Judge Saffold’s account particulars. To the extent they as a media entity have access to information, the temptation to use it will be strong, and tough to resist. Also, the Plain Dealer is providing Judge Saffold ample ammunition to argue that the Plain Dealer was being vindictive, and if it’s found to be liable, this may not help the damage calculus. (They’re certainly not abiding by the “less is more” rule.) On the other hand, a plaintiff who brings claims revolving around his or her reputation can expect to have everything in his or her background dredged to the surface. If Judge Saffold is found to have been the prolific online commenter that the Plain Dealer says she is, this is not going to do wonders for her reputation, which has probably already suffered some damage following the lawsuit.

Two other posts that I came across that are worth checking out: (1) “Judge Suing Newspaper for Breach of Web Privacy Agreement Over Being Outed as Author of Anonymous Comments” (this post by Professor Volokh and the comments to the post highlight the fact that there’s no clear answer under the policy) and (2) “Unmasking a Judge’s Anonymity: Saffold v. Plain Dealer Publishing Co” (this post by Professor Solove discusses the various legal claims, and also points in the direction of no clear answer, at least on the privacy policy issue).

Finally, Professor Goldman was on a Berkman Center panel that briefly discussed this case, along with a host of other issues faced by those who build and maintain online communities [YouTube link]: “Building and Managing Online Communities: Anonymity, Defamation and Privacy, Oh My!” The panel is well worth checking out.