Connecticut Cop Sues Local Blogger To Get Him To Turn Over Personal Info On Commenters Who Said Thing The Cop Didn't Like
from the ignorance-of-the-law-is-going-to-get-your-civil-suit-tossed dept
A Connecticut cop, who doesn’t like the things commenters said about him on a local blog, has decided he’s legally in the right to demand the identifying info of those commenters from the person who runs the blog.
Hartford police Lt. Vincent Benvenuto has filed a lawsuit in state court against Kevin Brookman, a Hartford resident who runs the popular We The People Hartford blog, seeking the identities of people who post comments.
The lawsuit does not seek money damages, but does seek to know who is posting anonymously on Brookman’s blog, said Benvenuto’s lawyer, Patrick Tomasiewicz.
“It’s a pre-suit discovery petition to try to determine what the source is or who the sources are of disparaging and defamatory comments made against Lt. Benvenuto,” Tomasiewicz said.
The “Bill of Discovery” [PDF] lists a lot of things that sound like protected speech, rather than defamation. There’s a long list of comments Lt. Benvenuto takes offense at, but a lot of commenters (who Benvenuto insists are actually other cops) making opinionated statements isn’t the best foundation for a libel lawsuit.
a. An August 5, 2019 thread disparaging the Plaintiff in a discussion regarding an ongoing HPD investigation;
b. An August 28,2019 thread accusing the Plaintiff of sleeping during his shift and appearing to accuse the same of impropriety regarding the use of his official vehicle;
c. An August 29, 2019 comment accusing the Plaintiff of inappropriately leaking police information;
d. An October 2, 2019 thread attacking the Plaintiffs ability to lead other officers, accusing the Plaintiff of making racist comments towards another officer, and accusing the Plaintiff of ignoring the racist comments made by subordinate officers;
e. An October 2, 2019 comment making unsubstantiated comments regarding the Plaintiff s job performance while working with the NYPD, and alleging that “[the Plaintiff] was racist so they kept him out of queens [sic] and Bronx;”
f. An October 18, 2019 comment stating, “All HPD Officers have been ordered not to read your blog by members of the Command Staff, Chief Thody included;”
g. An October 21, 2019 comment alleging that the Plaintiff has threatened to cut the Defendant’s throat, and characterizing the Plaintiff as “a complete disgrace to the badge;”
h. An October 21, 2019 comment where an anonymous user of the Blog posted using the name “Lt. Vincent Benvenuto” in which the anonymous user impersonated the Plaintiff and stated that his promotion to Lieutenant was not based on merit.
So, the usual internet stuff. Some of this could possibly be actionable, but it seems unlikely much of what’s listed here will withstand judicial scrutiny if it ever gets that far.
What’s even weirder is Lt. Benvenuto spends most of the run time of the Bill of Discovery alleging that the comments violate the Hartford PD’s code of conduct. I’m not even sure why he would bring that up. If these commenters are other cops and they are violating PD rules, then it’s up to the department to punish them, not a local court. I’m pretty sure no PD official advised the lieutenant to file a civil suit because he thought some cops might be violating the house rules.
Even if one was inclined to think this potential suit has merit, the Bill of Discovery targets someone for comments other people made. State and federal protections are going to make it very difficult (and rightfully so) for Benvenuto to move forward with his discovery request.
First, state protections for journalists likely cover Kevin Brookman and his long-running blog. He cannot be forced to divulge personal information on commenters or sources unless Lt. Benvenuto can prove the information cannot be obtained from any other source and that there’s an overriding public interest in the disclosure. Simply wanting it so he can get to suing commenters isn’t enough to meet that bar. The state law doesn’t say it specifically covers bloggers, but Goodman’s blog has been active since 2008, covering matters of interest to the public like local politics and — obviously — local law enforcement.
Section 230 also protects Brookman against litigation. While it’s true Benvenuto isn’t suing Brookman over the comments he feels are defamatory, he’s forcing him to respond in court to a baseless demand for user info. If Benvenuto wants to sue a bunch of Does, he can do that and make his discovery attempt at the appropriate time. Dragging a blog into this prior to commencing a lawsuit gets everything backwards by demanding the host of third-party content hand over identifying info before it’s even been determined his case has enough validity to move past an initial reading by a judge.
Lt. Benvenuto pre-lawsuit tactics aren’t going to endear him to the general public, much less the commenters at the “We the People” blog. You can’t sue your way into respectability, especially when you take a route that drives right through the First Amendment as if it isn’t even there.