By ERIC SLAGLE Daily News Staff Writer
Though they didn’t hit the scandal level of the WikiLeaks documents on
national security, lawsuits concerning Free Speech Rights and Internet
privacy affecting public figures in the Mon Valley did draw interest
from national media organizations and the attention of the American
Civil Liberties Union in the year gone by.
“It’s important to recognize that even if you
think that you are speaking anonymously on the Internet there are ways
to trace back that you are the user,” said ACLU Greater Pittsburgh
Chapter attorney Sara Rose, who is handling two of three cases with ties
to West Mifflin, Forward
Township and Elizabeth. “You can be unmasked.” Rose made that remark in
August after the ACLU complied with a judge’s order that it turn over
information that could potentially identify anonymous bloggers who
posted allegedly defamatory comments about
Forward Township supervisor
Tom DeRosa on the
www.elizabethboro.com website in fall 2009.
The case is similar to two other separate cases filed by West Mifflin by
borough police Sgt. Robert Husfelt and Councilman Albert Graham, who,
like DeRosa, claim they’ve suffered damages by remarks posted
anonymously on community-based websites.
The ACLU also is involved with the Husfelt case.
DeRosa claims in his lawsuit that his reputation suffered harm because
of postings calling him a liar and accusing him of hiring family members
to do township work. DeRosa has called
the statements lies and said he is determined to find out the identities
of the posters.
The ACLU — which had been representing Richard Rattanni, who operates
the website — complied with the order by Allegheny County Common Pleas
Judge R. Stanton Wettick that the Internet Protocol addresses of two
post ers be released, after arguing that Free Speech would be chilled
and that the site’s contribution to public discourse would be negatively
affected by releasing the information.
Rose said the fact that the ACLU was representing Rattanni, who himself
was not being sued for defamation, was
a consideration in its decision to forgo an appeal of the order.
The ACLU continues to represent anonymous web posters who allegedly put
up defamatory statements about Husfelt.
According to a complaint filed by Husfelt, the postings stemmed from a
target shooting incident involving him and his wife. Someone called
police on the couple, who were violating a local ordinance that
prohibits shooting in the borough. Police responded to the call and a
follow-up investigation determined that no dangerous activity had
occurred, according to the complaint.
When the incident was discussed by bloggers on the Topix web site,
allegations were made that Husfelt used drugs and had been arrested for
drunk driving. The complaint, filed in March, said the allegations were
false and were intended to defame, harass, annoy and damage Husfelt’s
Husfelt subpoenaed Topix for the Internet protocol addresses of three
anonymous bloggers alleged to have put up the postings, and Topix
complied. Comcast was subpoenaed in July to identify the account holders
of the IP addresses. One of the persons contacted the American Civil
Liberties Union and filed for a protective order against the subpoena
because, the blogger said, it was unclear if they posted the allegedly
Wettick, who also is the judge in this case, has upheld the order and
the case, like DeRosa’s, remains before the court.
A complaint for a third, similar case was filed by Graham.
The West Mifflin Area school board member alleges postings by five
anonymous users of Topix have injured his reputation as a chiropractor
and community member and caused him physical and emotional distress,
including loss of enjoyment of life.
One of the comments on the website made reference to Graham and a
“plastic bag ... tied tightly around the neck area.” Another said:
“Maybe even tie a bigger rock to his foot and shove him in his pool.”
Yet another posting calls him “a liar and a thief” and “coward.” The
negative comments about Graham online began after a report by
investigative firm Gentile-Meinert, released in late April by the school
district, linked Graham to alleged abuses of employee time under the
administration of the district’s former superintendent, the late Patrick
A. Risha. The work is alleged to have included repairs to Graham’s
swimming pool and the removal and installation of a dishwasher.
Many of the posts in question allude to the report.
No additional action has been taken on that case since the complaint was
filed in September.