ACLU warns Ohio mayor to back off threats to close Web forum

Thursday, August 19, 1999

An Ohio town's citizens group has restored a discussion forum to its Web site after the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union urged Berea's mayor to refrain from attempts to close the site down.

The Berea Town Forum dismantled the forum in March after Mayor Stanley Trupo and Town Council members criticized the site for allowing users to post anonymous and derogatory messages. During a Town Council meeting, Trupo said he would ask city lawyers to consider legal action against the site's owners.

On Aug. 13, the group launched a new online bulletin board, urging users to maintain civility when using the forum. The board still allows anonymous posting.

The Ohio ACLU, in a letter to Trupo, said future threats to shut down the Web site's discussion area “will not be taken lightly.”

“You do not have the right as a public official to use your office and the resources of the city to threaten suit against individuals for exercising their First Amendment rights,” wrote Gino Scarselli, the group's associate legal director. “Public discourse, including the criticism of public officials, is at the core of the First Amendment, and any attempt to stifle that discourse will be met with swift legal action.”

Residents of this Cleveland suburb formed the Berea Town Forum in 1997 to promote the historical preservation and the revitalization of their city. Last January, the group debuted its own Web site, complete with an online bulletin board for comments.

But Trupo contends that the original bulletin board, which allowed users to post anonymous messages, quickly degenerated into a hateful and unpleasant site. Although he didn't mention specific postings, he said several messages were unfair, brutal attacks on city officials.

“I have no problem with debate,” Trupo said. “Not at all. You have a right to disagree, and you have a right to an opinion. But let's be factual. And let's be upfront about it.”

But the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld anonymous speech, especially anonymous political speech. In its 1995 decision in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Committee, the court said the elections board violated the rights of an Ohio woman by fining her for distributing anonymous handbills. In the decision, the court said any limitation of core political speech must be “strictly scrutinized.”

Trupo said that he was not responsible for the site's five-month hiatus, adding that the sponsoring group made the decision to remove the discussion forum on its own.

According to a March 18 report in the Berea News Sun, Trupo asked city lawyers to look into the possibility of taking legal action against the Web site. The newspaper quoted Trupo as asking for “a full-scale investigation of the matter if the situation reaches that same level again.”

But Trupo said that he did not demand a full-scale investigation, saying city lawyers have too much work on their hands to worry about an errant Web site.

“My family came from Europe to get the right to free speech,” Trupo said. “I would never do anything to curtail it.

“I happen to believe strongly in the people's right to expression,” he said. “But I also believe that the expression should be truthful. My disagreement with the forum group is only with people putting remarks on screen without signing them. If you want to say something pleasant or unpleasant, then you should be accountable.”