COLUMBUS (TDB) -- An Ohio Supreme Court ruling last month for the first time recognized in the state a right to seek damages in cases where publicity portrays the person in a "false light." The case might have a bearing on a satirical blog called AngryGeorge, which is purportedly written by Hamilton County GOP Chairman George Vincent. Among other things, it has described him as using drugs.
The Bellwether reported Thursday that AngryGeorge was up and running. In a 5-2 decision June 6, the Ohio Supreme Court said it was concerned about the First Amendment, but said privacy rights were important, too.
"In Ohio, we have already recognized that a claim for invasion of privacy can arise when true private details of a person's life are publicized. The right to privacy naturally extends to the ability to control false statements made about oneself. Without false light, the right to privacy is not whole, as it is not fully protected by defamation laws."
Justice Paul Pfeiffer, who wrote the decision, also said:
"In Ohio, one who gives publicity to a matter concerning another that placed the other before the public in a false light is subject to the other for invasion of privacy if (a) the false light in which the other was placed would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and (b) the actor had knowledge of or acted in reckless disregard as to the falsity of the publicized matter and the false light in which the other would be placed."
Libel and defamation are difficult for anyone to prove. But they are virtually impossible cases for public officials and public figures to win, and GOP chairman Vincent would probably fall into both categories. However, false light might give him a door to step through if he chooses to take legal action. So far, there's been no public indication of his thinking. (All this is predicated on one fact: Vincent is not really AngryGeorge.)
Many legal scholars have warned the blogosphere -- which by nature has been rough-and-tumble with anonymous snark and unrestrained speech -- might be ripe for lawsuits that challenge its Wild West frontier nature. Consider this: Could a blog that is found taking liberties with the identity of its become the scene of a legal shootout at the OK Corral, could its appearance end up taming the Wild West?
The full-text of the Ohio Supreme Court ruling is available HERE (pdf) and grew out of a particularly nasty neighborhood feud in Stark County. One set of neighbors posted handbills at a school and job site accusing the others of vandalism. There was more to it than that, of course, but the allegations of criminal conduct were major parts of the false light claims.