- For people who might not be aware of your role in the Steubenville rape case investigation and reporting, can you tell our readers a bit about that?
On August 22, 2015 I was living in California and was surfing the net when I decided to read up on Steubenville, Ohio local news. I used to reside there years ago and like anyone who leaves their town, I checked in every now and then to see what was happening there. After I read the news story and knowing how heavily embedded into the local culture as in many small steel towns in the Ohio Valley area, I knew that two Big Red high school football players being accused of rape was a big deal and that people were probably discussing it online. Out of curiosity, I started researching online for additional information. I located a football roster for the team and began searching their social media for discussion about the case, as well as reading some local football forums. Once I started reading local chatter and the social media accounts of students, I was appalled at some of the conversations regarding Jane Doe.
Not knowing what evidence local law enforcement had, I telephoned my friend in Steubenville whose husband is an Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation agent, and who just so happened to be one of the agents on the case. She gave me her husband’s cell phone number, and I left a voicemail telling him what was online and if he wished, I could email him screenshots. I never heard from him and assumed that law enforcement was aware of the postings, and on August 26th I blogged about the case which immediately drew a firestorm of discussion from locals — both for and against Jane Doe.
2. What gave you the inspiration to search for evidence or information via social media accounts?
I have been a true crime blogger for many years, and in my experience as a legal consultant, I have learned, as have many others — if you want information you can usually find it via social media. Those using social media sometimes do not realize the worldwide audience that may have access to their public postings.
3. Why do you think that the police and mainstream press didn’t use the same kind of sleuthing techniques?
The use of social media in policing is an issue that has only begun to emerge in the last few years, and many police departments either don’t have the resources to mine for information or are not technically able to do so. I am not aware of Steubenville Police Department’s technological level of expertise regarding social media in 2012, but do know that they were aware of the social media as Jane Doe’s parents had presented it to them when they made the initial complaint. As for why local media did not discuss or sleuth the social media, I don’t have an answer for that. Again, because social media is relatively new, perhaps local journalists did not realize its value at that time. However, since the Steubenville case, many mainstream media outlets are using social media as a research tool, and I am not sure if that is a good or bad thing because vetting information before posting it is so important.
4. Some people were angry about you screencapping and using the social media information/reposting it. Our question foremost is, why do you think the teenagers involved posted so much online publicly about such a horrific event? Somehow it’s not just the disgusting fact that they hurt this girl but then the horrifying part where they also bragged about it. Do you have any ideas about why they felt so free to Tweet and Youtube post about it with impunity?
I think the teens did not realize the audience they were subjecting themselves to. My generation wasn’t brought up with internet, or having the ability to constantly be connected in realtime to our peers. Many parents do not understand the lasting digital footprint that is left by social media, and probably never had a discussion about responsible use of social media. The teens no doubt did not think of the possibility of the world seeing the inappropriate content or discussions they had online. As ugly as some of their tweets were, I believe that they just did not think twice about posting it or the potential ramifications for doing so. To this day, in part because of research of social media for some of the legal cases I consult on, I still see so much inappropriate content posted by teens with public social media accounts.
5. Both Jane Doe and you received cruel comments and harassment because of the case. One person even hoped you’d “get AIDS and die” on social media. Why do you think schools and towns work so hard to protect their athletes to the point that they re-victimize those hurt or harass people who try and speak up?
I don’t think this is just a Steubenville problem, or a high school problem when protecting athletes: It is a national problem. We live in a society where one’s social worth increases exponentially if you can throw a ball well or if you have superior athletic ability. Just within the past 5 years the number of professional and collegiate athletes are tremendous, and with each case the victim is revictimized, blamed and shamed solely based on the accused’s athletic status.
6. Similarly, what do you think the entire Steubenville case says about rape culture in American society?
The Steubenville case turned rape culture into an actual thing rather than just being a “feminist buzz word”. When the infamous video was released to the public, it was an in your face representation of rape culture in action.
7. Did you have any inkling at the time how big your blog and your role in the case would become? Again, why do you think the mainstream press (most notoriously CNN) were so bad at covering this?
I had absolutely no idea how big this case would become. In the beginning, we were just trying to get mainstream media attention on the case because of the potential for impropriety based on locals’ response to conflicts of interest with the prosecutor and the teen suspects. Again, and going back to rape culture becoming a real issue rather than a buzz word, I think that the video and all of the screenshots of social media really threw it in the public’s face about we as a society treat the subject of rape, and/or how we unknowingly enable it in our choice of words or reactions. Also, because there was so much emphasis on the fact that these were young, aspiring athletes — again it is how society perceives athletes and celebrities in comparison to Joe Schmoe down the street who might have been charged with rape.
8. Would you do the same things again?
No, not really. I constantly look back and think well — maybe if I would have not allowed some of the comments that were the subject of the defamation suit maybe there would have been no lawsuit, but then I think no — because it isn’t rainbows and unicorn speech that needs to be protected; it’s the ugly, truthful speech.
9. What would you like to say or impart to Jane Doe today?
I would tell her that she is a hero to so many men and women across the world and she has no idea just how many lives she touched, and how many lives she changed. I have received so many emails and stories from people over the years telling me how this case opened old wounds for them but they were hopeful in how society victim blames and shames would improve.
10. You also faced a suit over your blog. What argument did your legal team make in order to get the defamation suit dropped? Or, in other words, how can other blogs and sites like yours avoid being bullied or threatened with suits?
In late October, 2012 I did get sued as well as 25 anonymous John Doe commenters who had posted on my blog prinniefied.com. I was living in California and my legal team (Thomas Haren, Jeffrey Nye and Marc Randazza) did not accept service on my behalf. We never presented a legal argument to the Court as I was never served officially with the complaint. During the entire time the defamation suit was ongoing, my main concern and focus was finding the John Doe defendants legal representation. I was very worried that should their identities be revealed that they might face harassment in their hometown of Steubenville as most of the commenters who were visiting my blog were Steubenville locals. In mid-December, 2012, we were able to get representation for all of the John Doe defendant/commenters when the ACLU stepped in on their behalf. Within a week or so of the ACLU becoming involved, the Plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed the suit with prejudice, meaning they could never file it again. In my opinion, and that of my counsel, this was a SLAPP suit — a strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) is a lawsuit that is intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition.
My advice to other bloggers is to host their websites offshore with a company that is in a country that will not comply with US subpoenas, especially if they want their commenters to be able to speak freely without the chilling effect of a lawsuit.
11. If you could change one thing about how you covered Steubenville, what would it be?
This is a hard question. When the floodgates of media opened up it was very difficult to correct erroneous information that was being referenced and I was being sued — so it was very hard for me to try to correct information as I wasn’t able to speak publicly about the case because of the lawsuit.
12. What are you working on now? What types of news are you covering today?
My blogging at prinniefied has slowed down a lot. Mostly because after the lawsuit, it really did trigger a “chilling effect — not just with me, but commenters who were now fearful to comment because myself and my commenters had been sued. I am writing a memoir, and hopefully will finish it one day soon, but for now in this moment, I am focusing on my health and getting well. I am actually in the hospital now after having surgery 5 days ago. My surgeons removed an 8” mass and I am trying to get strong enough to be released home soon. Please excuse any typos or grammatical errors as they have me medicated.
13. Finally, how can people help support you and your journalistic efforts?
People can support me and my journalistic efforts by being an “upstander” rather than a bystander. I want people to walk away from my story feeling empowered to do the right thing, and by being that one lone voice in the crowd who speaks up even if doing so is uncomfortable.
Questions from editor:
- Not to invade Jane Doe’s privacy, but I’d like to know if she’s doing okay these days.
I have never spoken directly to Jane Doe, but do speak to her attorney regularly and have received messages from her mother through Mr. Fitzsimmons. I am told that she is doing very well. She graduated with honors, continued to play soccer throughout high school and was nominated for Homecoming Court. She is very fortunate to have a very loving, supportive family and others around her who love and support her, and she’s doing well. I applaud her. I’m not sure that I could have made it through something like this, but she did, and I foresee her doing great things in her life.
2. Have you heard of Carnegie Melon’s play on the subject?
No, I had not heard of this until you provided the link. I think it is wonderful that there are so many creative people who have used this case as a teaching moment utilizing the arts.
3. The years since have given rise to the “men’s rights” movement. Do you ever feel disappointed that the discussion (in pretty much every comment section I’ve seen) has become so muddied?
I think that many discussions have become muddied, and so many people have lost sight about acceptance, and being tolerant. I want equality for everyone but rights are going to be violated in order to create change. It’s the natural order of life. You have to find the problem to fix it. It is okay to agree to disagree with someone on their views and there is a respectful way to do so. It is also hard not to get aggressive sometimes when it is an issue you are passionate about. I don’t know that there will ever be middle ground or a time when discussions aren’t muddied. I think that is just human nature, and sadly there are a lot of people in this world who behave “sub-humanly”…so it’s a matter of picking your battles and choosing what you elect to drive you crazy. LOL.