School Board Trustee SLAPPs Five Towns Blogger With Defamation Suit
The blogger known only as Orthomom may not be Superwoman, but in the realm of the blogosphere -- where free speech and open expression of opinion is sacrosanct -- the anonymous blogger has become something of a hero.
No, we may not agree with much of what certain religious zealots post on Orthomom's blog -- or even with the labeling of the School Board Trustee (Pamela Greenbaum of Lawrence), with whom they obviously disagree, as a "bigot" and an "anti-semite" -- but we will defend to the last anyone's right of free speech, on the Internet and otherwise, especially as concerns opinions expressed vis-a-vis a public official.
Whether or not the words written on Orthomom's blog -- either by Orthomom or one of the many (mostly Orthodox) anonymous posters -- are libelous in nature, even a first year law student knows that derogatory and possibly erroneous statements aimed at a public official are not actionable without a showing of "actual malice." [We suppose that the School Board Trustee's attorney was absent from class the day New York Times vs. Sullivan was discussed!]
We can understand Pamela Greenbaum's frustration with the majority of the Lawrence School Board-- a majority that has the best interests of private school parents at heart, not public school students, or the community at large, for that matter -- and certainly Ms. Greenbaum has every right to be upset (we think "horrified" is too strong a word) when members of the Orthodox community, who rarely see beyond their own, parochial self-interests, call her a bigot and an anti-semite (statements of opinion, not fact), but clearly, there is no cause for bringing a defamation suit here, and surely, no action at law -- at least not one that could conceivably pass muster.
Pamela Greenbaum, as a staunch supporter of public education (though, in our opinion, a less than stellar representative of the cause) -- even in the face of apparent tyranny at the hands of the private school majority -- deserves praise for standing up for the public school children of Lawrence. They deserve better than what both the School Board and the voters are giving them.
To go on record saying that public funds should not be used for private schools -- a position with which we at The Community Alliance blog wholeheartedly agree -- doesn't make Ms. Greenbaum either a bigot or an anti-semite, protests by some of the more closed-minded in the Orthodox community notwithstanding.
That said, on the issue of Ms. Greenbaum's defamation suit -- designed to have a chilling effect upon free speech and public comment -- the Trustee is way off base.
Her lawsuit is nothing short of frivilous (something her attorney knew or should have known), and warrants not only outright dismissal by the trial court, but moreover, the imposition of monetary sanctions against both Greenbaum and her attorney.
Public debate and the fostering of open communications -- particularly in the forum of public education -- is not only useful, but absolutely necessary. Though unfortunate that some would stoop to name-calling and ad hominem attacks, those in the public's line of fire (as is Trustee Greenbaum), must learn to either take the heat or stay out of the kitchen.
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From the Nassau Herald
Lawrence school board member Pamela Greenbaum is taking legal action to identify the person behind the Orthomom Internet blog site, which she claims carried comments calling her a "bigot" and an "anti-Semite."
By Andrew Coen
Greenbaum filed court papers on Feb. 13 against Google Inc., which owns the Orthomom blog, in Manhattan Supreme Court to force Google to reveal the blogger's identity. The petition for pre-lawsuit discovery also seeks to identify anonymous contributors to the blog who allegedly posted comments accusing the District 15 school board trustee of anti-Semitism.
In the court papers, Greenbaum said she was "horrified" to discover the comments made about her on the site by Orthomom, who invited responses to what was written.
Orthomom aims to appeal to the Long Island Orthodox Jewish community, and claims it draws more than 300,000 visitors a year. The action is a prelude to a defamation lawsuit, if the identity of the bloggers is revealed. "Every day that the defamatory material remains on the Internet for all to see, I continue to be harmed as more such material is posted," Greenbaum stated in the court papers. "I believe that I have a valid claim against the anonymous writers who are responsible for spreading these unfair lies, but without the requested information there is no way for me to find out who is responsible and to bring a lawsuit."
The attacks against Greenbaum have intensified recently, since she publicly opposed "using public funds for private-school interests."
Hofstra University Law Professor Eric M. Freedman said Greenbaum's action of seeking Orthomom's identify has little to no chance of moving forward since derogatory language against a public official like a school board member is protected under the first amendment. Professor Freedman, an expert on the First Amendment and other civil liberty issues, said in order to seek the identity to pursue a lawsuit there needs to be a chance that the grievance would be successful which is not the case in Greenbaum's action.
"If the courts are behaving appropriately this filing will go absolutely nowhere," said Professor Freedman. "If she knew who Orthomom was and sued her directly it would be thrown out."
Greenbaum was first elected to the school board in 2003, and has been a staunch supporter of preserving public-school interests in District 15. When district voters elected private-school candidates Michael Hatten and Uri Kaufman last May, for the first time the school board had a majority of non-public-school parents -- with Greenbaum the most vocal of the trustees in the minority.
Greenbaum said that her attorneys have advised her not to comment further on the suit. The law firm handling the case, Feder and Rodney, Esq., also declined comment.
In addition to seeking the identity of Orthomom, Greenbaum is also requesting a temporary restraining order preventing the blogger from adjusting or altering records and comments on the site, so that the evidence is "properly preserved."
"I think she's absolutely justified," Stanley Kopilow, Greenbaum's fellow school board member, said of her suit. "You can't slander people and stomp on people's reputation anonymously."
In a Feb. 16 blog, the anonymous Orthomom called Greenbaum's court action "frivolous" and added that if she was so offended by the comments, she could have asked to have them removed, which has been done in response to other requests in the past. "I have it on expert legal opinion that this case is a joke," wrote the blogger. "This is more about 'unmasking' me than about her hurt feelings."
Lawrence school board President Dr. Asher Mansdorf said that since 2001, when he began serving as a trustee, he has often been deeply offended by comments made about him and has even been the target of death threats, but, he added, bringing a lawsuit is not the answer to the problem. Mansdorf criticized Greenbaum's action against Google. He also slammed recent suits brought against the Lawrence school district, including one attempting to remove three Orthodox members from the board and another trying to block a referendum that, if approved, would have provided busing to pre-kindergarten students in private schools and permitted community groups the free use of school buildings after hours. Mansdorf said the court actions were "designed to intimidate."
He also expressed his concern that the impact could dampen open dialogue. "Does Pam not think that a lawsuit will have a chilling effect on free speech?" Mansdorf asked.
A spokesman for Google Inc. would only say that the company has not been served with a complaint yet in regard to Greenbaum's action.
Comments about this story? ACoen@liherald.com or (516) 569-4000 ext. 210.