The Ohio Supreme Court is deliberating a political bombshell concerning whether a Cincinnati police officer has the right to remain anonymous in a defamation lawsuit that he filed against individuals who branded him a racist.
On Tuesday, the high court heard arguments in the case that bring to the forefront free speech and the rights of those who serve as civil servants.
The entire legal battle came about in connection to an “OK” symbol that was allegedly flashed by Cincinnati Police Officer Ryan Olthaus during a city council meeting that took place in June of 2020. He claimed it was meant to actually say “OK.”
Accusers claimed it was a “white power” message and Olthaus proceeded to sue them for calling him a racist, according to Cincinnati.com. They called it a dog whistle for white supremacy.
As the lawsuit played out, Olthaus was allowed to proceed using a pseudonym, and defendants were blocked from outing the officer publicly.
The Ohio Supreme Court heard arguments on two related cases Tuesday, Cincinnati.com reported.
The first one entailed whether Olthaus had the right to remain anonymous in court records. That would protect him from doxxing where his address and personal information would be exposed to those who could use it to harass or intimidate him.
The second case determines whether a court order imposed unjustified restrictions against free speech.
“Can a court say when you’re criticizing a government official you can’t use the person’s name? And our answer is no,” wrote highly regarded UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh according to Cincinnati.com. He made the comment in an amicus brief filed on behalf of media outlets, free speech organizations, and constitutional law professors.
Assistant Hamilton County Prosecutor Pamela Sears contends that banning social media posts and allowing the officer to file anonymously were designed to protect Olthaus against retaliation.
The officer’s name is already searchable and in the public domain, but in court documents, he is referred to as “M.R.”
“I guess I’m just kind of befuddled how an order keeping a name off of a lawsuit that is publicly available information, how there is any public interest in doing that,” Justice Patrick DeWine asked.
Olthaus sued Terhas White, local writer Julie Niesen, and others in August. All of them ostensibly accused the officer of racism. The lawsuit asserts that his privacy was “tortiously violated,” that he was doxxed online, and that he was defamed.
“People in the crowd made the juvenile, unfounded, incorrect, and hysterical claim that (the officer’s) innocuous ‘okay’ gesture was a ‘white power’ or ‘white supremacist’ hand signal intended to intimidate people,” the suit contends.
Olthaus’ attorney Zach Gottesman claims that the Cincinnati police intelligence found messages on social media discussing taking “actual concrete steps to harm him and his family.”
Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Megan Shanahan agreed to Olthaus using a pseudonym during the proceedings. Shanahan also approved a temporary restraining order barring Neisen and White from releasing any personal information concerning the officer.
Jennifer Kinsley, who is the attorney for White and one other defendant, is arguing that any judge’s order restricting the free speech of her client should be reviewed immediately by a higher court.
“There must be immediate appellate review,” Kinsley demanded. “My client never got that second look.”
She went on to claim that part of the issue is whether her client’s free speech was constitutionally protected.
“We have a long-standing tradition of public access to court records. The Ohio Constitution says all courts shall be open. It’s really a foundational legal principle,” proclaimed Jeff Nye, who is an attorney who filed an amicus brief on behalf of the media, free speech organizations, and constitutional law professors.
The court’s decision regarding the cases reportedly could take months.
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