BEACHWOOD, Ohio — The city of Beachwood and its chief of police have filed a lawsuit hoping to uncover a "John Doe" they claim is making defamatory comments about the chief.
The lawsuit alleges online Facebook comments and emails from an anonymous sender are malicious. The only question prompting this 13-page lawsuit is: Who?
Stamped with the name of Katherine McLaughlin — the first female Beachwood police chief — and the financial backing of the city of Beachwood, the chief is seeking the identity of an "anonymous sender" whom she claims is making these defamatory remarks. The lawsuit references comments on the city's police Facebook page.
One comment posted by "Amin Yashed" said officers will "need mental health counseling" because of McLaughlin. Another referenced in the lawsuit alleged improper relationships with subordinates and coworkers.
Additionally, the suit claims emails sent to city employees from an anonymous "Miss Maples" allege inappropriate comments from McLaughlin, including "You have to treat officers like children" and "Morale starts at the bottom." Yet despite the obvious headaches for the city, these claims are raising concerns in legal circles over free speech.
"I think the city is walking a very fine line here," civil rights attorney Subodh Chandra says.
Listed as a plaintiff alongside McLaughlin is the city of Beachwood.
"The city of Beachwood cannot bring a defamation complaint because the city of Beachwood can't be defamed and can't act as if it's an agent somehow for someone who is being allegedly defamed," Chandra told 3News Investigates.
Chandra explained that some of the anonymous comments, while critical, may not be a violation of the First Amendment, even if made by a city employee.
“The First Amendment does not protect defamation, but the First Amendment does give broad protection to our ability to criticize public officials even when we're wrong about it," Chandra said. "A public employee has a First Amendment right in their private capacity as a private citizen outside of their ordinary and ad hoc job duties of speaking on behalf of the government. Outside of those duties, they have the right to criticize the government. They have the right to blow the whistle on alleged misconduct, and so they have the right to do that even about information they've learned during the course and scope of employment."
3News Investigates attempted to talk to McLaughlin, Beachwood's Law Director Stewart Hastings, and Deputy Chief John Resek. None of them responded to us, but Mayor Justin Berns released the following statement:
"The City has a right to protect the work environment. In Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138 (1983) the United States Supreme Court held that a public employer has a right to regulate speech that deals with personnel and internal office issues. The public employer does not have to tolerate action that it reasonably believes would disrupt the office, undermine a leader’s authority, and destroy the close working relationships within the office. Id. At 154
"We consider it outrageous that a city employee or someone posing as an employee of the department would wrongfully accuse the recently married Chief of having an affair with her deputy whose wife works in the department. This libel as well as the others outlined in the complaint are clearly designed to disrupt the office environment, undermine her authority, and adversely affect her close working relationship with other employees.
"Also, malice in a defamation case can be proven in a number of ways. The actual legal standard is one who acts with actual malice or in reckless disregard of the truth. Telling a defamatory lie without a shred of evidence is acting in reckless disregard of the truth."
City Council approved a $25,000 budget in November for the lawsuit, which Chandra says is unusual as this is personal matter for McLaughlin. Also that same month, Hastings revealed harassing emails from an unknown person who threatened to sue if the city didn't approve the funds. No one 3News Investigates spoke with from the city would return comment when asked who.