A federal lawsuit filed last year against then-state senator Richard Ojeda by a Logan County man was confidentially settled last month, according to court documents.
The initial lawsuit, filed in April 2018, alleged that Ojeda used his influence and power as a sitting member of the state Senate to hinder David Woolsey’s right to free speech, therefore violating the First Amendment and Woolsey’s civil rights.
Woolsey filed the complaint after sharing a video of Ojeda, driving his signature red Jeep, crossing double yellow lines on a curve of W.Va. 10 to pass Woolsey, who was sitting in the passenger seat while his then-coworker, John Miller, drove a McCormick’s Furniture truck on the way to a delivery for the company.
In response to the video, Ojeda took to Facebook Live, where he called Woolsey an “oxygen thief,” as well as several other insults, before promising to call his employer, David McCormick, and report Woolsey’s behavior. Woolsey worked at McCormick’s Furniture for more than 10 years.
The next Monday, Woolsey was fired from his job. McCormick said at the time the firing had nothing to do with Ojeda’s video, or a call that he received from Ojeda that Saturday, the day after both videos were posted.
When Woolsey filed his lawsuit, Ojeda was running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in West Virginia’s 3rd District against Carol Miller, R-W.Va. After losing to Miller in November’s election, Ojeda resigned from his position in the state Senate in January 2019 to focus on a presidential bid, which he called off later that same month.
The video criticizing Woolsey was posted on Ojeda’s official “OjedaForCongress” Facebook page in April, which had more than 50,000 followers at the time. Through interviews at the time, Ojeda and Woolsey both admitted they had a history of disagreements, both political and personal.
Since Ojeda was considered a public official at the time, Woolsey argued in his complaint that Ojeda’s actions — both posting the video and calling McCormick — were abuse of power and an act of retaliation against him. That retaliation, the suit read, was an attempt by Ojeda, as a public official, to hamper Woolsey’s free speech.
John Bryan, a Union-based lawyer who represented Woolsey in the case, said that was the key to the complaint: defining the role of Facebook and social media when it comes to public officials, public forum and the right to free speech.
Today, Bryan said, most legal precedents on free speech and public officials concern newspapers and letters. The grey area of social media is nearly untouched.
While Woolsey’s case ended in a private settlement, meaning there was no binding case law issued regarding the case, the suit did evoke two memorandums that, Bryan believes, will be used as evidence as more and more cases arise involving public officials’ use of social media.
Both Bryan and lawyers for Ojeda said the settlement would remain as “confidential as the law allows.”
Ojeda said Friday it was a monetary settlement, but that “not one single penny came out of my pocket.”
Bryan conceded it was nothing huge, but that Woolsey was satisfied with the outcome and considered it fair.
Regarding the circumstances that lead to the initial lawsuit, Ojeda said he made some mistakes and does believe there is a chance the suit affected the success of his political bids, even if just a small amount.
“The truth is that, you know, I shouldn’t have passed on a double yellow line, but I did not get him fired. At the end of the day I allowed my emotions to get the best of me, which caused me to make mistakes,” Ojeda said. “I hope that Woolsey knows — I don’t wish him any ill harm, or his family. That’s just, you know, things happen in this world where sometimes things heat up, but we’re better than that.”