Judge lifts prior restraint in family law case, but stands by decision

Amelia Rufer | Prior Restraints | News | December 5, 2014

A controversial prior restraint in a Connecticut familly court case has been lifted, but the judge made clear that he still believes he did the right thing in barring the Connecticut Law Tribune from reporting on a publicly available document.

Superior Court Judge Stephen Frazzini vacated the order prohibiting a newspaper from reporting on a child custody case Wednesday. Frazzini did not find that the prior restraint violated the First Amendment. Instead, he recognized in his December 3 memorandum that it was pointless to maintain the order once other media outlets disclosed the same information, and that preventing the Law Tribune from disclosing already disseminated information no longer protected or endangered the children’s interests.

Ironically, the judge’s reasoning mirrors what the Law Tribune argued to have the restraint lifted — that the information was already in the public domain.

Judge Frazzini issued the order orally on November 24 after one party — the children’s mother — in the custody case filed an injunction to preclude the Connecticut Law Tribune from reporting on a public document. The Law Tribune obtained the court document when it was publicly posted on the state Judicial Branch website.

According to the November 28 memorandum explaining Judge Frazzini’s reasons for issuing the prior restraint order, the divorcing father electronically filed a habeas corpus petition to gain custody of his three children. By using a civil action form to submit what should have been a confidential juvenile matter, the document was temporarily made public.

“This case, should therefore not be regarded . . . as one in which the state itself has provided confidential information to the press,” Judge Frazzini stated in the first memorandum on Nov. 28. “Rather, it is a matter where a private party has used the state’s publically available civil judicial matters website as a means to disclose confidential information.”

In his Dec. 3 memorandum, Judge Frazzini makes clear that he believes the prior restraint order was never problematic, just ineffective.

Since the information from the habeas corpus was eventually covered by other news organizations, Judge Frazzini concluded that the only way to prevent further damage was to prohibit the parents and their attorneys — rather than the Law Tribune — from disclosing information to the public.

The Reporters Committee led a coalition of media organizations that joined the effort to overturn the prior restraint before the state Supreme Court. That appeal is continuing.