Cleveland Plain Dealer

Cleveland Judge, Anonymous Commenter No More

This story is full of intriguing questions and monumental stupidity, all in the name of anonymous commenters on newspaper sites.

It seems a certain “lawmiss” was frequently commenting on Cleveland Plain Dealer stories, mostly about legal matters.  It turns out lawmiss is linked to an email account used by Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold—and her 23-year old daughter

The Plain-Dealer decided it was a story that a judge was anonymously commenting on legal matters, including some cases before her.  So it published her name in apparent violation of its privacy policy.  The judge has sued the newspaper for $50 million, saying that all the “lawmiss” comments were posted by her daughter, who accepted responsibility.  But, the judge’s lawyer,

…in an interview with ABC News, acknowledged for the first time Wednesday the possibility that Saffold posted comments under the moniker "lawmiss," which was set up on through an e-mail account used by the judge. Saffold last month denied leaving any lawmiss comments, and her daughter took responsibility for all of them.

First question, why would an educated woman in a sensitive official position be so stupid as to share an email account with her daughter?  Second question, why would a daughter be so moronic as to comment on cases over which her mother presides?  This pair deserves one another.  Third question, did the judge really post some of the comments herslef? 

County records show that three of the comments were left at the same time as someone using Saffold’s court computer was visiting….. The judge acknowledged in an interview last month that such comments would have been improper if she had made them.”

But why did the Plain Dealer out lawmiss?  The judge’s suit claims it was in retaliation for a lawmiss comment that disparaged a reporter’s relative.  (So be forewarned should you in a comment evoke the ubiquitous “mother f****r charge.)  Seriously, I don’t know what the remark was.

[Plain Dealer Editor Susan] Goldberg said last month that the issues raised by lawmiss’ comments outweighed any privacy interests of the poster. [Editor’s note:  Who died and made them God?] Goldberg noted that comments made were not about trifling matters. The posts related directly to two death-penalty cases involving Saffold as judge — the 2008 murder trial of former Cleveland firefighter Terrance Hough Jr. and the case of Anthony Sowell, accused of killing 11 women.

"What if it ever came to light that someone using the e-mail of a sitting judge made comments on a public Web site about cases she was hearing, and we did not disclose it?" Goldberg said last month. "These are capital crimes and life-and-death issues for these defendants. I think not to disclose this would be a violation of our mission and damaging to our credibility as a news organization."

The day the story was published, Sowell’s lawyer requested that Saffold recuse herself from hearing the Sowell case, arguing that the lawmiss comments showed bias. Saffold has not made a decision.

In the lawsuit filed Wednesday, [the judge’s attorney Brian] Spitz argues that the newspaper’s online editors looked up the lawmiss user registration information as a vendetta, because of the remark left about a reporter’s relative.

OK.  We know many journalists have notoriously thin skins, but why would you decide to out someone just after she disparaged a relative?  Not too much of a stretch for people to think it’s retaliatory.

And exactly what was the newspaper’s privacy policy?’s privacy policy was written by Advance Internet, a separate entity affiliated with The Plain Dealer. The privacy policy states, "We may also provide access to our database in order to cooperate with official investigations or legal proceedings, including, for example, in response to subpoenas, search warrants, court orders, or other legal process."

None of those apply except perhaps “other legal process.”   Wide latitude there.  But I think even the Plain Dealer would admit that the reason was journalistic, whether valid or not.

A lot of commenters on the site are outraged that their identities are vulnerable to the newspaper’s whims.  But its policy also states,

"In addition, 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. . ."

In other words, if use f**k a lot, the paper may give your personal information to a porn site!  Seriously, if you mentioned in a comment that you like working in the garden, the newspaper could give your email address to a gardening company.  After all, it’s “lawful business purpose.”

So add to the stupidity hall of fame anyone who thinks their comments will always remain anonymous.

And finally, to add a little irony,

Even as the lawsuit criticizes the newspaper for revealing the e-mail address linked to lawmiss, it says it expects the defendants to identify all anonymous commenters who criticized Saffold on The suit lists those commenters as John Does and says they also are defendants.

So anonymous commenters, press your shirt, make sure your zipper is up and march on down to the county court.  You are about to live your worse nightmare.

Anonymous Commenters, Pt. 2

Monday, I discussed a thoughtful column in the Miami Herald about anonymous commenters on blogs.  Another one is here today.

The columnist set up a personal Facebook account to exchange views on issues.  She required civility and the commenters’ real names and got them.  But one guy couldn’t help himself.  After starting out civil, he became more agitated and unhinged, and finally she “unfriended” him.

But she noticed similar language in comments on stories posted on her newspaper’s website (Cleveland Plain Dealer).  There he was always vitriolic and anonymous.  She confronted him online and he admitted he was the anonymous commenter.

What I find fascinating about this incident is that he behaved so differently when his picture and his name were attached to his opinions.

I have since added hundreds more "friends" to Facebook, and similar circumstances have unfolded only a handful of times. We get fired up, but we seldom lose sight of our mutual humanity.

Then why do newspapers allow comment anonymity, when they would never print an anonymous letter to the editor?

Some in the newspaper industry insist we have to allow anonymous comments to generate traffic on our Web sites, which in turn determines what we can charge for online ads. They worry that we’ll lose online readership if we require identities with comments. Discussion, they fear, will evaporate.

Reminds one of corporations that are only out for a buck.  You know, they kind of companies some editorial pages pontificate about, which of course are totally independent from the publisher’s side of the enterprise.

Anonymous comments also alienate many thoughtful readers, who are the majority of people who read newspapers. [NC Editor’s Note:  The minority, those not very thoughtful, read gossip columns while watching “Fox News”.] When readers complain to me about ugly comments, I urge them to weigh in, but most balk. It’s like trying to persuade your friends to visit a great tavern in a bad neighborhood: They want nothing to do with that side of town.

Others think anonymous abusive comments actually hurt the newspaper.

"You can’t monetize jerks," [a newspaper editor] said.

This editor apparently didn’t want to give his name because he was not authorized to talk about readers.

Most Americans believe civility matters.

They also believe it comes with a name.