Steubenville, Ohio: Gang Rape + SLAPP Suit

SLAPP suits are never pretty.

This one is particularly troubling.

A couple of members of the Steubenville, Ohio Big Red football team were accused of kidnapping and raping a 16 year old girl at a party. (source, source)

A blogger, Alexandria Goddard, wrote about the incident. Naturally, she was outraged. She wrote another post, in which she also provided a copy of a photo, allegedly taken (or merely transmitted) by a Cody Saltsman.

codysaltsman photo

The photo and related tweets are available here. Tweets like “whore status” and “I have no sympathy for whores.”

Saltsman has not been charged with a crime. He denies, under oath, being at the party at all.

Nevetheless, the comments sections in Goddard’s blog lit up with negative opinions of the young man.

So his parents sued for defamation. (source)

Cody Saltsman and his parents, James and Johna Saltsman, filed the lawsuit through their attorney, Shawn Blake, seeking an injunction to force Alexandria Goddard of Columbus, who runs the blog site, to remove alleged false and defamatory statements from the blog site. The Saltsmans also are seeking monetary damages in excess of $25,000. (source)

The defamation suit names Goddard and 15 defendants, known only by their screen names and IP addresses. (UPDATE: Amended complaint here)

On Friday, the judge gave the plaintiffs the right to issue subpoenas to ascertain the identities of the 15 pseudonymous defendants. (source)

Jefferson County Common Pleas Judge David Henderson Thursday said attorney Shawn Blake can issue the subpoenas but the people whom Blake is trying to identify have the right to file their own motion to quash the subpoena.

The judge said Goddard, if she knows the identity of the annonymous people, should notify those people of the pending discovery and tell them they have 14 days to file a motion to stop the subpoena and the information being released that will make their identity known. The judge said the Internet providers who will be subpoenaed also should notify their customers of the pending discovery. (source)

For the most part, the defamation claims are off the mark. In the initial complaint, Goddard had a clean Section 230 defense. Since then, the plaintiff filed an amended complaint, which at least tries to plead around Section 230.

As far as the comments go, the majority of them appear to be non-actionable on their face. Review the amended complaint. Some of them, without knowing all the facts, might be capable of a defamatory meaning. For example, some of them accuse the kid of being the “ringleader.” That might be an issue, depending on the actual provable facts. On the other hand, some of them are downright silly to include in a defamation complaint.

Regardless, it seems like Saltsman will have some difficulty in this case (after all, the photo above seems to confirm some of the negative comments). I suppose he may have merely come into possession of the photo from someone who was there, rather than taking it himself, but it seems like a fair comment to presume he was there if he was tweeting and distributing the photo. I don’t see how he can deny that he was joking about it with his buddies on Twitter (unless all of the tweets and photos are part of an elaborate fabrication). I’m really not sure what else you could say about someone to damage their reputation further after you have those facts established.

Sickcrimes blog sums up the allegations for us here:

A girl was raped by at least two football players in Steubenville, Ohio and the act was photographed and/or filmed by several other teens at the scene of the crime. Did they try and stop the two fucknuts? Hell, no. Did they report the heinous act? What do you think? What they DID do was post about it on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

I am really not sure what you can say about a kid that would be more damning than that. Yes, some of the statements might be false statements of fact. But, even if they are, Mr. Saltsman comes to the case with a reputation already colored by his actions after-the-fact. Is it worse to say he was the “mastermind” of the rape? Yes. Is it worse to say that he “orchestrated” the rape? Yes. But, it is sort of like The Dude’s car in The Big Lebowski. When he finds it in the impound lot, it has been crashed, and a vagrant used it as a toilet. Is it really all that much worse when it finally gets blown up?

If the photo above is authentic, and not a complete fabrication, then this guy might have bigger problems than whether someone said something mean about him on the Internet. He certainly has some pretty foolish people advising him. Had he never filed this lawsuit, he would have gone off to college, everyone would have forgotten about it, and that would have been the end of it.

Now, at the very least, he breathed all kinds of new life into the story. At worst, the defendants might have to prove the truth of the matters asserted in their statements. If they can’t do so, and lets just say (for the sake of argument) that Saltsman wins the defamation suit, then what? He’s still the guy who kept photographic momentos of a gang rape and who joked about it on Twitter.

28 Responses to Steubenville, Ohio: Gang Rape + SLAPP Suit

  1. That whole case is crazy. The worst part is the special treatment for football players. I think that should be one of society’s greatest shames – allowing child rape to go unpunished so that the town can protect a football team. Sound familiar?

  2. I don’t know what the problem is here… We should be praising these young men – they are already sexually assaulting women at a collegiate level…

  3. HollyB says:

    Some very good points made, and ones Ive said myself. Had this family just kept this off a legal docket this may have eventually fallen below the 6th page of a Google search. Now that they have decided to try to repair their son’s reputation.. a reputation I might add he tarnished all on his own by the acts he committed, his name is sure stay on the first page. .. just in time for college scouts to be out looking at potential recipients of athletic scholarships. Cutting off their noses to spite their own faces.

  4. alpha4centauri says:

    Even if someone logged into his accounts because he left his computer logged in, the photos had to be there to be uploaded.

  5. lakindo says:

    I’m one of the anonymous few. I didn’t say anything I felt was defamatory and now I am nervous for I have no idea what to do and no $ for a lawyer..last thing I need is this.

    • Jon Jacobs says:

      Tough. If you were there and you did nothing, well that is the epitome of cowardice. Hard to feel sorry for ya. But if you are innocent then you have nothing to fear.

      • anon says:

        Jon, I believe that you misunderstood lakindo’s comment. I believe it expresses concern that anonymous comments they made online about the story would fall under the defamation complaint mentionned in the main article and they do not know how to proceed and cannot hire a lawyer to file a motion to avoid being identified by the subpoena.
        You seem to think it was an admission that they were present or in any way involved at the time of the crimes which does not seem to be the case at all from the words of the comment.

  6. Duderino says:

    I wrote out a long thing about how we really need to expect more of people in difficult situations (i.e. just because it’s hard to do the right thing doesn’t mean you should get off the hook for failing to do so) then I realized sickcrimes basically nailed what I wanted to say.

  7. WACKADOODLE says:

    lakindo, contact

  8. SHHHHHHHHH!!!!! You’ll scare the elephant out of the room…. nobody say “cognitive dissonance” or we’re screwed!!

    Wow, does reality have to be proven to have been subverted in so many ways that it should quite literally constitute a legitimate, actual, multiple miracle that even PZ Myers would believe it?

    I guess that it’s theoretically possible that the phone was already connected to the twitter and facebook accounts, and that someone could have stolen it (while Cory was breast-feeding little baby kittens at the neighbourhood shelter and didn’t need to make or take any phone calls for a few hours while all his mates were at the raping party), gone to the raping party, taken the pictures, tweeted the photo, added it to Cory’s facebook account, added some text, then driven back to Cory’s place, broken in, and snuck the phone back into Cory’s pocket without him realising anything.

    Then Alexandria would be wrong, by Jove! Ha! Take THAT, cognitive dissonance! [Trumpeting sounds as the elephant rushes out of the room]

  9. Pookie says:

    What bothers me about this case is in the court documents it lists anonymous posters 1- 15 by their screen names and what they claim they said that was defamatory. (one person was asking a question, another person didn’t even use Cody Saltsmans name just initials) Then at the end of the list it says 16-25 anonymous John Doe’s. So what are they going to do cherry pick through the IP’s they acquire for the next group of people to sue? How can they list unknowns (no screen name) and assume they can sue those they don’t know and can’t show what they said that was defamatory? Sounds to me like this entire lawsuit was to shut the towns people up. They want this Big Red Rape case to go away. BTW, how is it this little angel Cody Saltsman was not charged with anything along with his other buddies who walked away unscathed? Maybe Steubenville prosecutors need to watch the movie The Accused and see how they should charge bystanders who do nothing to help the girl but rather encourage the situation (taking pics and sharing online, Tweeting, etc) Cody Saltsman can sign all the papers he wants claiming he is innocent. The fact is, while he may not have participated in the actual rape of this girl, he DID participate in the online rape of this girl. Instead of his Mommy and Daddy teaching him a lesson in how to be a real man and take responsibility for his actions which people have a right to judge him on, they throw their money around and teach him how to pay to get your horrible actions swept under the rug. Not gonna work now that they filed this suit against people. Soon the national media will pick it up and even more people will know what their precious little cherub did. Good Luck with that.

    • That seems to be a pretty typical response from people I’ve shown this article and the linked story to… Why didn’t the kid get some kind of punishment when he was obviously there? And why are his parents now, months down the track, suing unknown people (some of whom may use anonymizer redirects to comment, so good luck there, mummy and daddy) in an effort to redeem their son? The answer to the last question is, as you’ve mentioned, they’re not, they’re trying to scare people.

      All this means is that smart people (like us!!! :) will start to use anonymizers in order to participate in these discussions. But how can the bloggers be protected from hysterical legal abuse like this? (Of course, I’m talking about bloggers reporting actual facts, not those deliberately making accusatory or false statements just to inflame readers and drive traffic up – like, say, conservative right-wing bloggers)

  10. […] Marc Randazza is covering the story of Cody Saltsman, a few other members of a Steubenville, Ohio football team and their proclivity for non-traditional hookups. Now, if you make fun of Cody Saltsman or imply he’s a rapist, he and his family apparently get nice and butthurt and will sue as Alexandria Goddard found out. So it’s possible that someone else took the picture, it’s possible someone else made the comments under Cody Saltsman’s name etc etc, but I ask you, how would you feel if this was something your son posted? […]

  11. Freetonia says:

    There are two issues at hand, one the reporting of the incident via Ms Goddard’s blog, and then the commentors take on the blogs, many of the commentors have personal knowledge of the incident because they live in or around Steubenville and either know directly or have heard local gossip and wanted to share that information whether it was true or not. I think we’ve been able to comment anonymously in this country since the 1700’s. Ms Goddard questioned some aspects of the crime and how it was being handled by local authorities but in no way claimed to know anything but what she herself found and put up on her blog via the boys own social networking which were all open to the public for viewing. That’s actually how she found out about the crime and the perpetrators in the first place. The boys told on themselves by bragging to everyone online about their crime and involvement.

    That being said, I think it’s open for discussion by any society to comment on what these boys said or implied what crimes they did to the underage girl. Being unconscious, being gang raped, ect…, what normal society wouldn’t comment on such vile behavior as that? I personally believe this is going to blow up in the Saltsman’s faces in ways they can’t even begin to perceive, I can only hope that thiis will lead to justice for the victim, her family, and much needed changes in the local law enforcement and judiciary now setting the standards for behavior in what must be one of the most dangerous towns in America to raise female children.

    This is a huge wake up call for the people of Steubenville, and for the rest of us to really pay attention to what our children are doing online. No one was more surprised by Saltsman’s behavior it seems than dear old mom and dad.

  12. HollyB says:

    Marc, I would love to get your input on this –
    It seems that one of the commentators has been named and her address revealed on recent court dockets. She is already being trolled online by a less than savory blogger. Could the attorney have not put “defendant doe _____” on the docket? How would you have handled this?

    • I can not speculate on strategic moves made by other attorneys in this case. Perhaps she wanted to come forward under her real name? I really don’t want to second guess her.

  13. Three words only, for the Saltsman family and the poor, deluded pundits who think that the US legal system will have any impact whatsoever on the blogging scene : There Be Dragons.

    I wonder who Mr and Mrs Saltsman will sue when “” – and far worse – starts attacking their son? Upper Transylvania? Remember, Marc himself was victimised recently – and he’s one of the GOOD guys!

    I do feel empathy for the victims here – the blogger, the commenters, and the poor, unfortunate girl at the invisible centre of this sh!tstorm. But given the spinal fortitude of the US ISPs, they deserve to lose a whole lot of business as bloggers with something to say move to offshore hosting.

    But there’s a silver lining : the owners of the various IP anonymisers, based out of the reach of the US legal system, will get a huge traffic increase.

    Yeah, the Internet says “Nuts” to this bizarre and foolhardy attempt to silence free speech. I hope for the family’s sake that’s all the internet has to say.

  14. Pookie says:

    Why don’t you two take whatever personal problems you have with each other elsewhere? This is not the blog for it. This case has absolutely nothing to do with either of your issues. Mr. Randazza I hope you remove both of their posts as all it is doing is crapping up your blog about a very important issue. An issue that many want to read about but don’t want to wade through the B.S. to do it.

    Thank you!

    • I agree. I had planned on a “shut the fuck up” comment, when I logged in and saw that you did it for me. I’m banning EVERYONE involved.

      • Pookie says:

        LOL Didn’t mean to barge in and tell you what to do but here’s the thing, I know some of the people who have been listed by screen names and I also know some like myself wondering if the John Does 16-25, will later turn into theirs or my screen name. It’s worrisome and frustrating when certain people/person high jack every single blog on the internet that is talking about this case and starts crying foul about something that has nothing to do with it.

        What these people don’t understand is, there are many people involved in this not just Ms Goddard. While Ms. Goddard was named first, there are 25 other people involved here. Now is not the time to have squabbles about things not related to this case. Now is the time to join together because Everyone’s free speech on the internet is at risk here.

        • I didn’t take your comment as “barging in” or “telling me what to do.” I think you made a very accurate observation, and your suggestion on how to deal with it was the best one. I appreciate the feedback.

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