CINCINNATI, Ohio (FOX19/Cincinnati Enquirer) - A federal judge Tuesday declined to issue a court order preventing council members' private text messages from being released.
U.S. District Court Judge Mike Barrett left open the door for the plaintiffs in the case - who have not revealed themselves, - to request a more narrow restraining order on their specific text messages, according to our media partners at the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Two plaintiffs called “John Doe 1” and “John Doe 2” sued the city June 24. They claim their constitutional rights were violated and their privacy was invaded when the city recently released some of the messages sent last year to the “Gang of Five” city council members: P.G. Sittenfeld, Chris Seelbach, Tamaya Dennard, Wendell Young and Greg Landsman.
The suit alleges the city illegally exposed private information about their lives when they released texts that also were given to the media, including FOX19 NOW.
The suit seeks a restraining order to halt the city and attorney Brian Shrive from releasing more texts until the case is decided.
The texts and emails were collected as part of an anti-tax activist represented by Shrive filed suit in April 2018 over whether the five council members privately discussed public city business via texts.
The lawsuit accused the Democrats as “a cabal of five rogue members” of council holding illegal, secret meetings via email and text messages to discuss Mayor John Cranley asking the then-City Manager Harry Black to resign in violation of Ohio’s Sunshine Law and the city charter.
The texts, including one-on-one messages, were released as part of the lawsuit settlement in March and again in June after a Court of Claims recommendation from a Special Master in another case related to Gang of Five.
City attorneys, during Tuesday's hearing, said the council members granted the release of those messages as part of the case settlement. In other instances, they only release communications related to city business, per public records law, they added.
At one point the plaintiff’s lawyer, Jennifer Kinsley, named Flora Young, Councilman Wendell Young’s wife, as a a party that could be harmed by the released of private text messages. The city responded that Young had deleted his texts so that was not a concern. Young’s message were the subject of a grand jury investigation, but ultimately no wrong doing was found.
Shrive's lawyer, Curt Hartman, argued the lawsuit is attempt to prohibit openness, transparency and accountability and any restraining order would violate Shrive's First Amendment right to free speech.
Hartman sought to find out who the citizens who filed the suit were, contending there is no right to privacy in a lawsuit like this. They are described in suit as being involved in Hamilton County Democratic party politics. But, with no restraining order issued, they were not named.
With hundreds of more texts and emails exchanged by private citizens and the council members in the city’s possession and able to be given to anyone filing a public records request, the Does now also seek class-action status.
If granted, that would open the litigation to hundreds of other potential plaintiffs who may have sent texts to the five council members last year.
This comes less than a month after the city released text messages between former Cincinnati Mayor Dwight Tillery and “Gang of Five" council members and as FOX19 NOW continues to seek more messages the parties exchanged in the past.
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Messages released in June revealed Tillery helped the“Gang of Five” strategize amid a City Hall power struggle when the mayor tried to oust Black last year.
Tillery repeatedly insulted Cranley by calling him a variety of derogatory names: “rogue mayor", a “racist”, “corrupt" and a “crafty little bastard.”
He suggested recalling his political foe, council having a special prosecutor investigate Cranley and warned riots could break out if Black was pushed out.