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Judge Takes Paper To Court Over Online Comments
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Judge Takes Paper To Court Over Online Comments

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Judge Takes Paper To Court Over Online Comments

Judge Takes Paper To Court Over Online Comments
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Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold presides over a hearing i

Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold presides over a hearing for Anthony Sowell in Cleveland last month. Saffold is suing the Cleveland Plain Dealer after the paper reported that an e-mail address linked to her was used to post dozens of comments on its Web site. Mark Duncan/AP hide caption

toggle caption Mark Duncan/AP
Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold presides over a hearing

Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold presides over a hearing for Anthony Sowell in Cleveland last month. Saffold is suing the Cleveland Plain Dealer after the paper reported that an e-mail address linked to her was used to post dozens of comments on its Web site.

Mark Duncan/AP

The judge presiding over a high-profile serial killer case in Cleveland is now herself under scrutiny after her e-mail address was linked to dozens of comments on the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Web site.

Some comments were about ongoing cases she's hearing, including that of Anthony Sowell, who's suspected of killing 11 women. Now, Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold is suing the newspaper for $50 million, saying it violated her privacy.

The commenter used the name "Lawmiss" and posted more than 80 comments on the site. But the comments raised the suspicions of an online staffer at the Plain Dealer, who, when investigating the pseudonym, stumbled on an e-mail address linked to Saffold.

Already under suspicion for her Web comments, Saffold won't talk about her suit against the paper, but her lawyer Brian Spitz doesn't deny that she sometimes used the name Lawmiss.

But, he says, "Judge Saffold commented on nothing that's currently — or has ever been — pending in her court."

Those comments, Spitz contends, were actually written by Saffold's 23-year-old daughter. The judge says they shared the AOL e-mail address.

The Meaning Of 'Anonymous'

But it's the release of her online identity that's the basis of Judge Saffold's $50 million suit against the Plain Dealer. Spitz argues that the paper violated privacy policies when it revealed Saffold's identity.

"Either the Plain Dealer breached its promise to keep that information confidential, or it never intended to keep it confidential," Spitz says. "So it's either a breach of contract or fraud."

The Web site's policy states: "we reserve the right to use the information we collect about your computer, which may at times be able to identify you, for any lawful business purpose."

Now that the suit has been filed, Plain Dealer editor Susan Goldberg won't discuss it, but speaking on NPR's On the Media recently, she defended the paper's publication of Saffold's identity, saying it was in the public interest.

"What keeps getting lost in this debate is the right of this defendant, who's on trial for his life, for a fair and impartial judge," Goldberg says, referring to accused killer Anthony Sowell, whose trial starts in June.

Comments More Controversial Than The Case

The case against the Plain Dealer is adding to an already messy situation.

A few days before Saffold sued the Plain Dealer, Sowell's attorney, Rufus Sims, confronted Saffold about reports in the paper about the postings, including one that said he acts like a buffoon. The exchange was posted on the Plain Dealer's Web site.

"Judge, after reading that article, it was shocking!" Sims reportedly said. "And, I couldn't believe what I was reading! And, I couldn't believe that that generated from your AOL account, your honor."

"OK, so that makes it even more of a reason for you to know it wasn't me," Saffold reportedly responded.

Saffold says she will decide soon whether to recuse herself from the case. Law professor Jackie Lipton of Case Western Reserve University thinks she needs to in order to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

"She probably should recuse herself from the cases she's commented on, but that, to me, is a separate issue to how the information was released in the first place."

Digital Frontier Trips Up Judges, Newspapers

Saffold is just the latest judge to find herself in the minefield that is the Internet.

A North Carolina judge was slapped with a reprimand last year after he communicated by Facebook with a defense lawyer trying a case before him. Also last year, a judge running for re-election in Washington state was accused of using a government computer to post disparaging remarks about his competitors. He lost re-election.

Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute says Saffold's case comes as news organizations debate their online comment rules.

"Newsrooms all over the place are reconsidering how they allow citizens to be involved in the news," McBride says. "I don't think many newsrooms will get rid of comments."

And, for now, the Plain Dealer is still allowing supposedly anonymous comments on its Web site, while Saffold decides her next move.

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