Ohio’s internet abuse law wouldn’t survive a challenge

It is easy to understand why Ohio’s internet harassment law was challenged by a liberal group, a conservative organization and a freelance political reporter.

Huh? What on earth would bring such a diverse coalition together?

Concern about freedom of speech. It is not at all difficult to spot a threat to it in the 2016 law. It prohibits posting any content on the internet “for the purpose of abusing … or harassing another person.”

Much of the political rhetoric being exchanged these days could be construed to fit into that very broad category. Is accusing a governor of being lazy abuse? Is posting newspaper editorials demanding, over and over again, that legislators take a certain action harassment?

Needless to say, some politicians feel abused and harassed at much of what they see said about them, not just on the internet but also in newspapers, on television and radio.

So a liberal blog, a Tea Party group and a self-employed political reporter challenged the law in federal court. Their argument was that they use “invective, ridicule and strong language” frequently in internet posts.

But U.S. District Court Judge Sara Lioi dismissed the coalition’s challenge. Those filing the lawsuit had no standing to do so because they faced no reasonable threat of being prosecuted under the state law, she decided.

Lioi did not rule on the lawsuit’s merits. Therein lies the rub. Apparently, it will take an actual prosecution under the law for a federal judge to rule it is unconstitutional — which it plainly is, if applied to internet comment regarding politics, social issues, economics or just about anything else.

What about use of the internet for genuine, vicious harassment? We will just have to wait and see.

We suspect few Ohioans would have much tolerance for use of the law to silence dissent. Most Americans understand the necessity of strict enforcement of the First Amendment to avoid that. And doubtless, state legislators understand their statute could run afoul of the Constitution.

Those who would use the law to muzzle exchange of ideas should bear all that in mind. There is no doubt that the law would be ruled unconstitutional if it ever is used improperly for that purpose.

COMMENTS