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.

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Comments on “Connecticut Cop Sues Local Blogger To Get Him To Turn Over Personal Info On Commenters Who Said Thing The Cop Didn't Like”

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31 Comments
Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

No SLAPP, what are the potential resources?

"As of 12 September 2018, Connecticut does not have an Anti-SLAPP statute." What a shame. I suppose Kevin Brookman will need to find a different method for recovering his costs in this frivolous action (and hopefully cause some pain). Is there a tort that allows for Kevin to sue Lt. Vincent Benvenuto? Tortuous interference for example, if that is such a thing in Connecticut?

On the other hand, what do Lt. Vincent Benvenuto’s superiors thinking about his actions and what they mean for community relations?

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

A cop with skin so thin that they go to court over hurt feelings is a cop that doesn’t deserve to wear the badge. If anonymous blog commenters make him take this kind of vindictive action, what the hell would he do when the people he serves act belligerent towards him in public?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

what the hell would he do when the people he serves act belligerent towards him in public?

Simple:

  • If black shoot and ask questions never.
  • If white and well off thank and ask for another.
  • Otherwise arrest or file frivolous SLAPP suits against them.

Didn’t you get the memo? It was part of orientation…..

A cop with skin so thin that they go to court over hurt feelings is a cop that doesn’t deserve to wear the badge.

Of course they do. Don’t believe me? The President of the United States is such a person. Apparently US society thinks that such people not only deserve high power and privilege but such people should be given every possible power and privilege.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
btr1701 (profile) says:

…a lot of commenters 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;

Opnion. Not actionable.

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;

Allegation of fact, not opinion. If untrue, it indeed can be defamatory.

c. An August 29, 2019 comment accusing the Plaintiff of inappropriately leaking police information;

Allegation of fact, not opinion. If untrue, it indeed can be defamatory.

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;

Mixture of fact and opinion. If untrue, some of it can indeed be defamatory

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;"

Allegation of fact, not opinion. If untrue, it indeed can be defamatory.

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;"

Allegation of fact, not opinion. If untrue, it indeed can be defamatory.

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;"

Allegation of fact, not opinion. If untrue, it indeed can be defamatory.

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.

Opinion. Not actionable.

So contrary to Cushing’s characterization, most of what is alleged were statements of fact, not opinion. (And no, that doesn’t mean I support a court ordering a third part blogger to expose the identities of commenters. I’m just pointing out Cushing’s inaccurate soft-pedaling of the allegations.)

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

but you do understand that all of those allegations of fact need to have some proof that they are indeed fact?

Sure. The plaintiff has the burden of proof in every lawsuit. That doesn’t change the fact that the allegations are not "mostly opinion" as Cushing claimed.

Were any of those proofs included with the documents filed with the suit?

One doesn’t usually present evidence in a complaint, let alone a discovery request. That’s done during trial.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Dan says:

Re: Re: Re:

Proof isn’t required with the complaint; the question is whether the complaint on its face makes the appropriate claims. But I’d disagree with btr1701’s analysis on most of the ones he says are fact and therefore potentially defamatory:

  • Sleeping on shift–yes, that’s a statement of fact. Misuse of the patrol car may or may not be, depending on what’s meant by "misuse" (or "impropriety").
  • Inappropriately leaking information–depends on what’s meant by "inappropriately", but is probably opinion. If there were specific claims of violations of specific policies, rules, regulations, or laws, that would likely be a statement of fact.
  • Ability to lead, making and ignoring racist comments–as stated, this is pure opinion. If there are allegations that specific words or phrases were used, that would be a question of fact.
  • The NYPD thing–the only part of this that’s a statement of fact is that he wasn’t in Queens and Bronx, but I don’t see how that could be defamatory. His job performance and alleged racism are matters of opinion (with the possible exception of incorrectly recounting his performance evaluations, etc.)
  • HPD officers ordered not to read the blog–yes, it’s a statement of fact, but so what? How is it possibly defamatory?
  • Threat to cut D’s throat–yes, that’s a factual claim.
  • Disgrace to the badge–pure opinion.
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Wendy Cockcroft (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I mostly agree with Dan on this, but also with btr1701.

  • Sleeping on shift — that could get him fired, ergo actual harm, ergo defamatory. Merely lying about a person isn’t defamatory unless people believe this and it has consequences, e.g. social exclusion or job loss.
  • Leaking information, whether appropriately or not, is not an actionable statement because it’s a matter of opinion as to whether disclosure is leaking and/or appropriate or not unless this is specifically stated in relation to the disclosure. For example, if the Plaintiff was accused of leaking information about a particular case in progress by making a particular statement to the press, this could lead to disciplinary action and would therefore be a harm suffered, ergo defamation unless it could be proven untrue. Without evidence to support or debunk the statement, it’s just opinion.
  • RE: ability to lead and/or racism, it’s opinion until some checkable detail is provided. Vague comments about the Plaintiff being a racist aren’t sufficient to meet the bar for defamation.
  • The NYPD thing–the only part of this that’s a statement of fact is that he wasn’t in Queens and Bronx, but I don’t see how that could be defamatory. His job performance and alleged racism are matters of opinion (with the possible exception of incorrectly recounting his performance evaluations, etc.)

Yep.

  • HPD officers ordered not to read the blog–yes, it’s a statement of fact, but so what? How is it possibly defamatory?

Unless specific officers are mentioned by name and actual harm is caused by the assertion that cops are banned from reading the blog, it’s just opinion.

  • Threat to cut D’s throat…disgrace to the badge

I’m with btr1701 on this. If it’s a lie, it’s defamatory but only rises to that bar if it has caused actual harm, e.g. disciplinary action against the Plaintiff.

  • promotion to Lieutenant was not based on merit

Pure opinion. Impersonating the Plaintiff — nobody would have believed it.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Wyrm (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Another thing this "bill of discovery" is missing is actual quotes.

I can allege that some anonymous commenter on Techdirt defamed me on Oct 2, 2019. I can even say that he said I threatened someone. That’s not enough for a lawsuit. I’d have to quote the comment or… in the words of Ken "Popehat" White… "vagueness in defamation claims is the hallmark of frivolous thuggery."

All the claims quoted here are vague. "Someone said something", and yes some of the claims allege that there are statement of facts. But as long as we can’t read the actual comments, there is no way to tell if that’s true of if that’s only the cop’s interpretation of it.

bhull242 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Agreed. The fact that there are very few quotes and none of the quotes are complete or include any context is highly suspect. Some of the alleged defamation may be pure opinion, opinion based on disclosed fact(s), or opinion based on undisclosed fact(s), of which only the last may be defamatory, but we cannot tell which without more information. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg with the problems.

bhull242 (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I agree in a number of areas, with some caveats, which I’ll explain point by point. Anything I don’t mention I don’t necessarily disagree with unless it’s predicated on these points.

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;

While you claim that this is may be defamatory, I do feel it worth mentioning that if it is, it’s defamation per quod that needs evidence of special damages, and you must at least allege those damages in the complaint

c. An August 29, 2019 comment accusing the Plaintiff of inappropriately leaking police information;

Again, I don’t think this is defamation per se. At most, it’s defamation per quod.

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;

You say this is a mixture of fact and opinion, some of which may be defamatory, but you don’t clarify which is which. The “ability to lead” is absolutely opinion. The “racist comments” thing is mixed, but without the entire quote, it may well be based in disclosed facts rather than undisclosed facts, which means that would be still be protected opinion.

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;"

Contrary to what you said, almost all of this would be opinion, unless there are specific details not mentioned in the Bill of Discovery. About the only fact here would be that the Plaintiff was kept out of Queens and the 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;"

Again, even though this is a statement of fact, even if untrue, I’m not sure that it’s defamatory.

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;"

While I agree that the first part is a statement of fact and would absolutely be defamatory if false, the second part is absolutely opinion.

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Anonymous Coward says:

If the LT has been reading the blog after this date, he is wrong

"All HPD Officers have been ordered not to read your blog by members of the Command Staff, Chief Thody included;"

It seems like this Lt needs to be reigned in. He is clearly violating the order to not read the blog if he has found statements to complain about after that directive.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: 'I said stop looking behind the curtain!'

Personally I find it rather interesting that they were apparently so spooked/scared of a blog that they tried to prohibit officers from reading it, and so stupid that they thought that ordering that would do anything other than encourage officers to read it to see what they were so scared of.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: If the LT has been reading the blog after this date, he

"The Chief of Police doesn’t actually have the authority to issue that order."

And yet, if the Chief of Police DID, in fact, issue such an order we might be looking at a case where none of the officers in the precinct, from high to low, knows the very basics f the law they’re supposed to defend.

Are we talking about a gang defending it’s street cred or a law enforcement agency empowered by the state to uphold the law by force?

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Sounds like someone we know, right?

"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. "

  • Doesn’t like what people say about him. Throws a hissy fit.
  • Threatens legal armageddon.
  • Goes after the blog owner since he’s too much of a dick to realize intermediate responsibility shouldn’t be a thing in a civilized society.

Is it just me or is this cop just a bit too identical to our local forum troll Blue/Jhon/Herrick/Bobmail?

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Sounds like someone we know, right?

"He’s not, SDM."

I know, i know. I was just fascinated by the appearance of a troll in the wilds of the real world who displayed such an eerie similarity to the foul beast we’ve seen slurking about on these venerable pages for so long. It’s a bit like seeing a second gollum showing up in the "lord of the rings" movies.

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