15. Free speech issues come to fore in area cases



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


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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 reputation.

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 defamatory comments.

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.

 
 

 
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