Judge Sues 'Cleveland Plain Dealer' For Unmasking Her

judge/brown bag

An Ohio judge who allegedly posted comments to the Cleveland Plain Dealer under a pseudonym has sued the paper for $50 million for unmasking her.

In a lawsuit filed in state court this week, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold alleges that the paper violated its privacy policy by revealing in a March 26 article that someone using her email account had posted comments to 80 stories under the pseudonym "lawmiss." She sued the paper as well as its editor, Susan Goldberg and parent company, Advance Publications.

Saffold also alleges in court papers that her ex-husband originally created the account, which was used by him, herself and her daughter, Sydney. Saffold's lawyer, Brian Spitz, says that the judge authored some of the lawmiss comments, but never wrote about any of the cases pending before her.

The newspaper reported that it only investigated the identity of lawmiss after someone using that screenname sent in a post dealing with the mental health of a relative of Plain Dealer reporter Jim Ewinger. The March 26 article also said that some other comments attributed to lawmiss concerned pending legal cases, including an ongoing capital murder trial.

Saffold now alleges that the newspaper broke its contract with her by violating its privacy policy, which, she says in her court papers "does not authorize the release of registration information to newspapers, its reporters or other individuals or companies for publication purposes upon request."

She adds that the newspaper "reinforced the contractual expectation of privacy by only displaying anonymous screen names on comments from users."

The publication's privacy policy outlines specific circumstances under which it will divulge personally identifiable information. For instance, the site says it might share data with "affiliates and carefully selected companies" can offer services and products of interest to users, unless users opt out.

But the privacy policy also contains this broad statement: "In addition, we reserve the right to use the information we collect about your computer, which may at times be able to identify you, for any lawful business purpose, including without limitation to help diagnose problems with our servers, to gather broad demographic information, and to otherwise administer our Website."

While the paper will probably argue that its statement allows it to divulge users' data for any reason whatsoever, Saffold can counter that the examples provided all relate to business issues, but don't indicate that the paper's editorial staff will publish personal information in news articles.

Sam Bayard, assistant director of the Citizen Media Law Project, says it's hard to predict how a court will view the paper's decision. "I certainly think it broke expectations," he says. "Whether it breached the contract is another question."

Media law expert Marc Randazza says the language in the paper's privacy policy appears "loose enough that they'll be able to wriggle their way out of it."

Nonetheless, he says, the paper's actions were questionable. "If you create a system where you can post under a pseudonym, and you do have a privacy policy that leads people to believe you're going to protect people's identity, that's something you should do," he says.

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