A clinic of law students and an attorney at Case Western Reserve University have adopted the Nelsonville Crackheads lawsuit, arguing the former Nelsonville city clerk’s defamation claims against the Facebook group have no legal basis and only serve to chill free speech.
The First Amendment Clinic, organized by attorney and law professor Andrew Geronimo, is comprised of students certified to practice law in compliance with Ohio Supreme Court rules.
The group, who takes up First Amendment cases pro-bono, will defend Korey Whitmore, an administrator of the Nelsonville Crackheads Facebook group who was in need of legal representation after his attorney dropped him in recent months.
Nelsonville’s former city clerk, Andrea Thompson-Hashman, who’s also the daughter of City Council Member Greg Smith, filed a suit against the Facebook group’s administrators, including Whitmore, last year alleging that it’s members libeled her with false statements about a pay raise she received and levied damaging claims of nepotism against she and her father.
The Crackheads Facebook group primarily posts about crime and other city issues, including frequent posts regarding the controversy surrounding Smith’s recent ouster from City Council, according to The Athens Messenger.
Geronimo was quick to dismiss the legal claims outlined in the suit, arguing in a letter sent last week to Thompson-Hashman’s attorney, Sierra Meek, that the Facebook group members’ posts were merely opinions, not provable statements of fact, and were primarily levied at Smith, who’s a public official beholden to the strictest interpretation of free speech laws.
“Board public discourse about government affairs, even where it turns ugly, is one of the central tenants of the First Amendment,” Geronimo said in the letter. “This lawsuit should have never been filed, as the facts cannot possibly support liability in a way that would comport with the First Amendment's strict standards.”
He called Thompson-Hashman's complaint an exemplary “SLAPP” lawsuit intended to silence critics with intimidation tactics.
"We think that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects people's ability to criticize government employees in the performance of governmental function," Geronimo said.
A receptionist at Meek’s office said the attorney declined to comment on Geronimo’s letter.
Geronimo also argued that Thompson-Hashman is unable to prove that the Crackheads’ administrators had actual malice, the benchmark for determining libelous speech against public figures, or that she suffered damages because of the social media posts.
Since the suit was filed last year, Thompson-Hashman has resigned from her post at the city, and her father was recently suspended from City Council after the body determined in February that he was not a continuous resident of Nelsonville. The Crackheads Facebook group played a central role in accelerating the ousting of Smith from Council.