Cincinnati Police Officer Sues for Defamation Over Protest Posts on Social Media

The defendants say they were exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech and that the lawsuit is an attempt to chill criticism of policing in the city.

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Hamilton County Courthouse - Hailey Bollinger
Hailey Bollinger
Hamilton County Courthouse

A lawsuit by a Cincinnati Police officer alleging he was defamed by social media posts got a preliminary hearing today in the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas.

The defendants in the case say they were simply exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech and that the lawsuit is an attempt to chill criticism of policing in the city.

They point to similar lawsuits across the country and the fact that leadership at the city's police union looked into hiring a firm led by Zachary Gottesman, who is representing the anonymous officer, as part of a strategy to be more proactive about criticism against police.

Hamilton County Judge Megan Shanahan has ordered documents bearing the officer's name and personal information be sealed and that media should not publish audio or video of his testimony in court.

The officer and his attorneys say the posts were defamatory and put the officer in danger, alleging that some social media posts suggested sharing the officer's home address. That address was never shared publicly, however.

The officer is described only as "Mr. A Cincinnati Police Officer" in court documents. Both sides in the case agree that the officer was present at a June 24 meeting of Cincinnati City Council's Budget and Finance Committee, during which a group of police accountability activists were advocating for defunding the city's police department.

Both also agree that the officer in question gave the "OK" hand gesture during a tense moment between the protesters and officers at City Hall.

The lawsuit alleges "Mr. A Cincinnati Police Officer" gave the gesture after a protester asked about another officer who had departed the scene. Protesters have pointed out that the "OK" gesture has been co-opted by far right, white supremacist groups.

In the days after the incident at City Hall, several Facebook posts appeared connecting the gesture to white supremacy, noting the officer made the gesture and delving into the officer's background. Those posts also discussed videos depicting violence against protesters that "Mr. A Cincinnati Police Officer" had shared to Facebook and his history of use-of-force and other complaints.

"There should be ZERO tolerance of white supremacy in the Cincinnati Police Department," wrote Julie Niesen, one poster now being sued. "I don't care if it's a 'joke.' That is nothing to joke about." 

The city's Citizen Complaint Authority, the independent body charged with looking into allegations of police wrongdoing, plays prominently into the current lawsuit, which alleges that complaints made to the oversight board by protesters after the June incident were false and could negatively impact the officer's employment.

All of this is alarming, critics of the lawsuit say, because it could discourage individuals from airing criticisms of police in the future.

Fraternal Order of Police President Dan Hils has said the police union isn't behind the lawsuit.

Last month, the FOP president promoted the idea of the union hiring Gottesman and former City of Cincinnati attorney Peter Stackpole to take a more aggressive tack against pushback on police.

"We have found ourselves the number one target of a movement that intends to do our society harm," Hils wrote in a Facebook post in July promoting the change in legal representation. "There are factions that wish to hurt you in the worse ways imaginable. These parties need to be dealt with aggressively and publicly. To be blunt they need to be sued every time they sneeze! When you mess with us, we will mess with you should be our message."

Judge Shanahan is hearing the case. Late last month, she ruled against a request by "Mr. A Cincinnati Police Officer" and his attorneys that the defendants be forced to take down the Facebook posts and be restrained from making further posts.

The defendants are under a temporary restraining order instructing them not to reveal the officer's name or his personal information.

The next hearing in the suit is scheduled for Sept. 1.





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