School district superintendent seeks gag order against critic

From the opinion of yesterday in Cozad v. Ohio Election Commissiondecided by the Ohio Court of Appeals:

In September 2019, John M. Stafford, a voter and resident of the Bellbrook-Sugarcreek School District, filed a complaint with the Commission against Citizens of Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Schools, a political action committee formed to promote the adoption of a tax levy on the Vote for the May 2019 primary and special elections – its treasurer, Andy Lowrey, and its campaign chairman, [Douglas] Cozad, who is also superintendent of the Bellbrook-Sugarcreek School District. Stafford alleged that the political action committee violated Ohio election laws by failing to disclose in its campaign finance materials the value of in-kind contributions it received from the school district…. [F]After its preliminary review of Stafford’s complaint, the commission concluded that there was probable cause and scheduled the case for a hearing.

In December 2019, several months before the scheduled hearing on Stafford’s complaint, Cozad filed a petition with the commission for a protective order, pursuant to Civ.R. 26(C). Apparently to protect himself and the other respondents from annoyance, embarrassment and oppression, Cozad sought an order broadly prohibiting Stafford from:

(1.) post public comments on this action in any form, including but not limited to social media (e.g. Facebook);

(2.) Disseminate, disclose or comment to the public on information, documents or other things gleaned by discovery or from subpoenas issued to third parties;

(3.) Disseminate, disclose, or publicly comment on any information, material, or evidence of any deposition; And

(4.) Attempt directly or indirectly to influence the Ohio Election Commission or public opinion regarding this action through public comment, including but not limited to the use of social media ( for example Facebook).

Cozad attached copies of messages from a Facebook page, allegedly run by Stafford, to his petition for “Vote NO on the Bellbrook-Sugarcreek School Tax.” The attached posts contain criticism of the school district, its officials and attorneys (who now represent Cozad), and the levy. Cozad argued that Stafford used the Facebook page to influence public opinion and the commission’s decision-making process.

The commission’s staff attorney, who has the authority under Ohio Adm.Code 3517-1-09(B), to handle discovery disputes arising in cases before the commission, issued a letter denying Cozad’s request for a protective order. In the letter, the staff lawyer said: “The Commission cannot and, in my experience, does not consider matters not presented to it during the hearing before the Commission. The Commission will not consider information published in any other medium or format outside of the hearing. This may affect the Commission’s consideration of such evidence.” Staff Counsel warned the parties and their attorneys to “refrain from any activity that would prevent this Commission from having a proper and impartial review of the evidence in this matter.”

Finally, the staff attorney said the commission would not interfere with Stafford’s First Amendment rights…. In other words, although staff counsel declined to restrict Stafford’s ability to speak or share information about the case, he assured the parties that statements made outside the confines of the hearing would not affect the committee’s review.

Cozad then appealed, and the District Court and Court of Appeal found that they had no jurisdiction to review the denial of the protective order; but to me, what is remarkable is that an elected official asked for this kind of order in the first place, and that the Commission’s staff lawyer rightly rejected it. (Courts can indeed restrict litigants’ ability to distribute documents gleaned from coercive discovery processes, but items 1 and 4 of the proposed order would clearly have been unconstitutional.)

A follow-up, by the way, from Dayton 24/7 Now (Lydia Bice) in September (so a few years after the order request, which went the usual slow way through the two layers of appeals):

Just days before their trials are scheduled to begin, Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Schools Superintendent Doug Cozad and a former school board member agreed to plea deals….

“As you may be aware, I was faced with a situation in court regarding the May 2019 school tax. I wanted to inform you that this morning I accepted a plea from Alford for one count of complicity of dereliction of duty, a second-degree misdemeanor, with all other charges dismissed,” Cozad said in a statement posted on the Bellbrook-Sugarcreek School District website.

Other charges that were dismissed included three counts of dereliction of duty and four counts of unlawful transaction of public funds.

Court documents from the Xenia Municipal Court indicate that Cozad authorized the use of public funds to pay for the printing and mailing of a district newsletter that included political approval of tax number 4 in 2019 .

“This plea allows me to proclaim my innocence and, at the same time, to put this situation behind me in order to move forward both personally and professionally. Even if I have never personally benefited from it, I will have to compensate part of sending postcards regarding the May 2019 school tax of approximately $5,800 to the district,” Cozad said.

Cozad remains the Superintendent of Bellbrook Sugarcreek Schools.


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