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Appeals Court Rejects Prior Restraint In Defamation Case; Could Have Gone Further

from the make-it-so dept

As highlighted by the folks at EFF, Judge Richard Posner has ruled in an appeal on a defamation case, tossing out an injunction against two individuals who defamed two other people. The details of the actual case fall into the “somewhat nutty” category, involving some religious stuff that we’ll skip over as not relevant. What you need to know is that two people (Patricia Ann Fuller and Paul Hartman) were sued and found to have defamed Kevin McCarthy and Albert Langsenkamp. Some of those people go by other names and titles (including Mr. Langsenkamp referring to himself as a Papal Knight of the Holy Sepulchre), but we’ll leave that aside. The court found in favor of the plaintiffs and said that the defamation occurred. The only real issue on appeal was whether or not the judge’s decision to issue a very broad injunction against Hartman and Fuller was appropriate.

And here we come to an issue that comes up semi-frequently in discussions of defamation cases: if you are found guilty of defamation, can you be (1) forced to take down the defamatory content and (2) barred from saying it again (or saying something like it)? For the most part, courts have said that you cannot have an injunction against defamation, because that’s classic prior restraint in violation of the First Amendment. That is, the government cannot tell someone “you cannot say that.” So, in most cases, the remedy for defamation is a monetary one (along with the satisfaction of a court ruling saying that what was said about you was false). There are some fairly narrow exceptions in some courts that have argued that it’s okay to tell someone that they cannot repeat the very same statements found to be defamatory.

However, while there are a bunch of rulings on this topic, it’s never quite gone to the Supreme Court, so there’s at least some ambiguity. In this case, the District Court judge basically ignored all of that and issued a massively broad injunction. Without having the jury specifically determine which statements were defamatory, the judge issued an injunction saying that they couldn’t publish any of the statements that the plaintiffs claimed were defamatory — or “any similar statements” — and further ordered Hartman to take down his entire blog.

That’s pretty clear prior restraint, and indeed the three judges on the appeals court all agreed, throwing the case back to the district court. As Posner noted, the lawyers for Fuller and Hartman were… shall we say… not the most professional, which may have contributed to the result:

The conduct of the litigation in the district court by the lawyer representing Fuller and Hartman showed, as the district judge explained in granting the request for attorney?s fees, a serious and studied disregard for the orderly processes of justice. That disregard has persisted on appeal. Many of the grounds on which Fuller and Hartman seek reversal were waived, are frivolous, or are incomplete, with the important exception of the permanent injunction entered by the district judge, to which we devote the balance of this opinion.

Part of this included not filing a timely objection to the injunction, which in most cases would mean that this issue wouldn’t be reviewed. However, Posner notes that given the seriousness of prior restraint and the First Amendment, it’s still appropriate to explore this issue, especially since the public could be harmed:

Fuller and Hartman missed the deadline for responding to McCarthy?s motion for a permanent injunction, however, and ordinarily such a miss would have justified the judge?s rejecting any objection to the injunction as untimely. But the injunction in this case had the potential to harm nonparties to the litigation because enjoining speech harms listeners as well as speakers.

Posner’s main issue with the injunction is just how incredibly broad it is, and the fact that the jury never determined if each specific statement was defamatory. He stays away from the larger question of whether or not defamation can ever be enjoined, by noting that the broad nature of this injunction is reason enough to toss it:

But this is not a case in which we have to decide whether defamation can ever be enjoined because, even if it can be, the injunction issued by the district judge cannot be sustained. An injunction against defamatory statements, if permissible at all, must not through careless drafting forbid statements not yet determined to be defamatory, for by doing so it could restrict lawful expression. The injunction that the district judge issued in this case was of that character, owing to its inclusion of vague, open-ended provisions for which there is no support in the jury verdict or, so far as appears, in the district judge?s own evaluation of the evidence. We have no jury findings as to which statements were defamatory, and the plaintiffs didn’t even ask the judge to address that absence, so he didn?t. As illustrative of the injunction?s resulting excessive breadth, notice that it orders Hartman to take down his website, which would prevent him from posting any nondefamatory messages on his blog; it would thus enjoin lawful speech.

As Posner further notes:

An injunction against speech harms not just the speakers but also the listeners (in this case the viewers and readers). ?[T]he First Amendment goes beyond protection of the press and the self-expression of individuals to prohibit government from limiting the stock of information from which members of the public may draw.? … The injunction in this case is so broad and vague that it threatens to silence Fuller and Hartman completely.

Unfortunately, Posner does not just toss out the injunction completely, but rather sends it back to the lower court to try again, meaning that the judge may get another chance to try an injunction.

There’s a good concurring opinion from Judge Diane Sykes, who agrees with tossing out the injunction, but disagrees with sending it back to the lower court, making an even stronger argument in saying that injunctions are an inappropriate remedy for defamation, citing numerous cases that make this argument:

More fundamentally, the question whether an injunction is permissible at all in this context is a sensitive and difficult matter of First Amendment law. A court order permanently enjoining future speech is a prior restraint and as such is presumptively unconstitutional. Any prior restraint comes to us ?bearing a heavy presumption against its constitutional validity,? Bantam Books, Inc. v. Sullivan, 372 U.S. 58, 70 (1963), and ?permanent injunctions?i.e., court orders that actually forbid speech activities?are classic examples of prior restraints? because they impose a ?true restraint on future speech,? Alexander v. United States, 509 U.S. 544, 550 (1993). As the Supreme Court explained in its seminal case condemning prior restraints, an injunction against future speech?making any publication of the suppressed speech punishable as contempt?is ?the essence of censorship.? Near v. Minnesota ex rel. Olson, 283 U.S. 697, 713 (1931).

Consistent with this bedrock free-speech principle, the traditional rule in defamation law is that ?equity does not enjoin a libel or slander[;] ? the only remedy for defamation is an action for damages.? e360 Insight v. The Spamhaus Project, 500 F.3d 594, 606 (7th Cir. 2007) (quotation marks omitted); see also Metro. Opera Ass?n, Inc. v. Local 100, Hotel Emps. & Rest. Emps. Int?l Union, 239 F.3d 172, 177 (2d Cir. 2001); Kramer v. Thomp-son, 947 F.2d 666, 677 (3d Cir. 1991); Comm. for Creative Non-Violence v. Pierce, 814 F.2d 663, 672 (D.C. Cir. 1987). This rule ?has enjoyed nearly two centuries of widespread acceptance at common law.? Kramer, 947 F.2d at 677; see also Erwin Chemerinsky, Injunctions in Defamation Cases, 57 SYRACUSE L. REV. 157, 167?68 (2007); Michael I. Myerson, The Neglected His-tory of the Prior Restraint Doctrine: Rediscovering the Link Be-tween the First Amendment and the Separation of Powers, 34 IND. L. REV. 295, 308?22 (2001).

The Supreme Court has not yet directly addressed whether injunctive relief is a constitutionally permissible remedy for defamation, but the general equitable rule accords with the Court?s prior-restraint jurisprudence dating back to Near, which invalidated a Minnesota statute that permitted the issuance of temporary and permanent injunctions against persons and organizations engaged in the publication of defamatory newspapers, magazines, or other periodicals. 283 U.S. at 702, 723; see id. at 712 (?[S]uppression is accomplished by enjoining publication, and that restraint is the object and effect of the statute.?).

While Judge Sykes notes that some courts have allowed very narrowly tailored injunctions for the specific repetition of statements, she questions the wisdom of those rulings, stating “I’m not sure I agree with this modern trend” and then notes that the key cases where this has occurred have very distinct facts associated with them that “make it difficult to map their holdings onto defamation law.” And, she notes, the key cases that are often cited aren’t really defamation cases at all. And thus injunctions in defamation cases are tricky to accept:

Defamation by its nature is highly contextual. A statement that is defamatory in one circumstance, time, or place might not be defamatory in another circumstance, time, or place. A permanent injunction as a remedy for defamation does not account for constantly changing contextual factors that affect whether the speech is punishable or protected. If factual circumstances change in a way that affects the defamation calculus, the person enjoined must risk contempt or seek the court?s permission to speak. As the Court said emphatically in Near, ?[t]his is the essence of censorship.?

And thus, she feels that sending the case back down only opens up another opportunity for unconstitutional prior restraint — and, tragically, gives off the belief that this is okay:

By offering the district court an opportunity to craft a new injunction, my colleagues imply that such a remedy is constitutionally permissible?indeed appropriate in cases of judgment-proof defamers who might not be deterred by a damages award…. I cannot join this part of the court?s opinion. At the very least, it wrongly implies that a core liberty secured by the First Amendment?the right to be free from prior restraints on speech?does not protect people who lack the means to pay a judgment.

It’s too bad this wasn’t the actual opinion, but it’s still better than nothing. Overall it’s a good ruling, but it would be nice to have it confirmed once and for all that injunctions against future speech are, indeed, prior restraint.

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Comments on “Appeals Court Rejects Prior Restraint In Defamation Case; Could Have Gone Further”

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SirWired (profile) says:

Injunctions for proven defamation seem reasonable

A permanent injunction for statements that have been proven (via a trial verdict) to be defamatory seems reasonable. Such an injunction should be narrowly tailored to the specific statements found to be defamatory. I could totally see a demented losing defamation defendant continuing to repeat what a court has determined was false.

While recovery from defamation may be defamatory, that doesn’t mean the damage defamatory statements do confines itself to neat dollar signs; forbidding the false statements from being repeated seems to be a reasonable remedy.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Injunctions for proven defamation seem reasonable

Dammit… I meant “While recovery from defamation may be MONETARY”

In the broader scheme of things, why does it really matter what any homeless street people say?

Suppose a defamation defendant becomes impoverished through —repeated— awards of damages. At that point, does it really matter whether some ragged crazy beggar keeps insisting on telling lies about the plaintiff? What true, fresh injury does the lie do at that point?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Injunctions for proven defamation seem reasonable

… forbidding the false statements from being repeated seems to be a reasonable remedy.

Consider: A person says, “ X ”. A complaint is lodged, and person becomes defendant. Trial is held, defendant becomes loser. Jury returns special verdict form, finding that statement “ X ” is defames the plaintiff.

Now, may this person be forbidden from saying “ X ” in all circumstances, forever? Even in a truthful report of his own trial? If the person is perpetually forbidden to even say things like, “I am enjoined from saying, ‘ X ’ ”, then there’s a clear problem.

Better to forbid the judge from issuing an injunction against saying “ X ”, than to wind up in a situation where an injunction prohibits the person from saying, “I am enjoined from saying, ‘ X ’ ”.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Injunctions for proven defamation seem reasonable

It’s even worse than that. Let’s say Steve says “Bob has been throwing his dog poop into my lawn”. A trial finds that defamatory and he’s enjoined from saying it ever again. Then Bob actually starts throwing his dog’s poop into Steve’s lawn. Now Bob is enjoined from making a true and correct statement about Bob.

M. V. says:

The trafficking of innocent human beings from birth, to be utilized in MKULTRA torture experiments, FOR A LIFETIME, requires covert defamation. This is carried out very effectively by very skilled and highly placed participants.

Here is the method–
A child is sold at birth to be tortured in MKULTRA experiments. Secret services open files on this innocent person and covertly carry out “investigations.” Those doing the investigations can become very wealthy. Defense budgets are in the tens or hundreds of millions. Decades before 9-11–investigations of “terrorists” were taking place, using different falsehoods.

The person can be covertly defamed and a gag order can be used to threaten any righteous person from revealing the defamation. In many cases, a person will have been trafficked by his or her own extended family, for profit. Most victims will never know what happened to them.

If a defense person were observed shooting a citizen to death, questions would be asked. If a defense person makes slanderous or libellous statements that are the equivalent of a death sentence, not one person will be the slightest bit concerned.

Why is it that billions and billions of dollars are being poured into brain research?

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