Posted on December 31, 2023

Formerly Anonymous Police Officer Accused of Being a ‘White Supremacist’ Loses Defamation Lawsuit Against Activists

Colin Kalmbacher, Law & Crime, December 27, 2023

An Ohio police officer has lost his defamation claims against several racial justice activists who accused him of being a racist and “white supremacist” during a dispute after a city council meeting in 2020.

A three-judge panel on Ohio’s First District Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of a defamation case brought by Cincinnati police officer Ryan Olthaus in a 16-page opinion released on Wednesday.

In July 2020, Olthaus, at first anonymously, filed a lawsuit complaining that Julie Niesen, Terhas White, Allisa Gilley, James Noe, and several other unnamed Does defamed him over his use of the “OK” hand gesture – where one’s thumb and forefinger connect in a circular shape while the three remaining fingers are extended.

A trial court initially allowed Olthaus to remain anonymous in court filings – though his identity was broadly known. The Ohio Supreme Court later made the officer’s name a matter of public record.

The underlying incident occurred during a demonstration that followed a special open forum held by the Cincinnati City Council in June 2020. There is no dispute that Olthaus made the hand gesture in question. The officer claims that gesture was meant to signify how a fellow officer was doing – in response to a question from White. The activists, however, took the symbol quite a bit differently.

“In various ways, they publicly criticized Officer Olthaus and his gesture, describing him, primarily in social media posts, as a ‘white supremacist’ and calling the gesture a ‘white power’ hand sign,” the appellate court explains.

Olthaus alleged some of the defendants spread false and defamatory statements about him in social media posts that referred to him as a “white supremacist kkkop” and “white supremacist piece of s–––,” among others. Additionally, Olthaus alleged two of the plaintiffs falsely filed complaints with a local oversight board that accused him of using a “white power” hand signal while on the job and for using “a white supremacy hand-signal towards citizens of color.”


Calling the pejoratives used to describe the officer as racist “plainly subjective, value-based” and unverifiable, the court determined that there is no actual, commonly-understood meaning of the terms, but rather an emotional one that will be different based on the person reading them. And, the court found, the same was true for the hotly-disputed “OK” hand gesture.


In other words, the appeals court found that all of the accusations “represent opinions, rather than facts that can be tested to determine their veracity.” And, the court determined, “accusations of bigotry similar to those present here are not actionable in defamation.”


“We recognize and appreciate Officer Olthaus’ point that the allegations of white supremacy were incredibly damaging to him, personally and professionally,” the opinion reads. “Social media has the capacity to ruin lives with the click of a button, but courts do not exist to referee debates on those platforms, nor could we do so consistent with the First Amendment and the Ohio Constitution.”