Apr 082010
 April 8, 2010  Posted by  Court, Featured News, Online

I was waiting for the other shoe to drop on this one, and now it has. As reported previously, the Cleveland Plain Dealer recently unmasked an online commenter and identified her as a judge. Now the judge is suing the paper for $50 million. Jeff Gorman of Courthouse News reports:

A state court judge demands $50 million from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, claiming it wrongfully exposed her and her daughter as the source of online comments about the judge’s cases. Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold and her daughter, Sydney, seek damages for fraud, defamation, tortious interference, breach of contract, and invasion of privacy.

The Saffolds sued in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas over a story by James McCarty in the Plain Dealer’s March 26 edition.

Named as defendants are the Plain Dealer Publishing Co., editor Susan Goldberg, and the companies that run the Cleveland.com Web site, which include Advance Publications. McCarty is not named as a defendant.

The Saffolds say McCarty identified them as the source of online comments posted by “lawmiss,” from Judge Saffold’s computer.

Some of the comments dealt with cases in Saffold’s court, including the pending case against Anthony Sowell, who has been accused of murdering 11 Cleveland women.

The Plain Dealer story reported that Judge Saffold denied making any of the comments about her cases, but that her daughter admitted making some of them.

The Saffolds claims that the Plain Dealer violated its privacy policy by revealing the identity of “lawmiss.”

Read more on Courthouse News.

From the complaint, it seems that the plaintiffs allege that the paper’s primary motive in breaching the commenter’s privacy was that the commenter had made a comment about the mental health of a relative of a Plain Dealer reporter.

This is the second case this year where a commenter on a newspaper’s site has either been unmasked or negatively affected by the paper revealing the source of comments. In an earlier case, St. Louis Post-Dispatch social media editor Kurt Greenbaum was offended by a commenter’s language and after deleting the inappropriate comment only to have it resubmitted, he contacted the school identified in the commenter’s IP to alert them that someone at the school had posted inappropriate comments on the paper’s site.

Occasionally the FTC looks at businesses to see if they are living up to their stated privacy policy. Online privacy policies may be business decisions, but they are part of the public’s ability to trust sites. Would you post comments on a site if their stated privacy policy was, “We will respect your privacy and not reveal any account information unless obligated to by legal process or unless you piss us off?”

I would like to see the FTC take a look at the Plain Dealer case to see if they think that the paper’s action was consistent with its stated policy.

Related: Strickland-Saffold v. Plain Dealer.

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