Order prohibiting journalist from ever writing about Haitian prime minister dismissed; but PM can refile complaint

Nicole Lozare | Prior Restraints | News | April 9, 2013

A federal judge in Miami today dismissed the defamation suit against a U.S.-based Haitian journalist and retracted a previous court order prohibiting him from ever publishing anything about the Haitian prime minister and a Florida businessman.

Federal District Judge Ursula Ungaro dismissed the case without prejudice – meaning Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe and businessman Patrice Baker can amend and re-file their defamation complaint against journalist Leo Joseph and the Haiti-Observateur.

In dismissing the case, Ungaro held that Joseph was not properly served, Lamothe and Baker failed to properly plead actual malice, and the prior restraint order censoring Joseph was unconstitutional.

“It’s important for the First Amendment because prior restraints are so disfavored,” said Joseph’s attorney, Scott Ponce, in an interview. “Our law says better to let you say something and if you’re wrong, you pay money and damages instead of not let you say it in the first place.”

Lamothe and Baker filed the defamation suit in a Miami federal court in September. According to the complaint, articles written by Joseph in August and September and published by the online and print versions of Haiti-Observateur alleged that Lamothe and Baker improperly benefited from the sale of a Haitian telecommunications company and that the prime minister flexed his political muscle to facilitate the deal.

Joseph did not respond, paving the way for Lamothe and Baker to obtain a default judgment in their favor. In February, Ungaro granted the judgment, adopting verbatim a proposed order by Lamothe and Baker prohibiting the journalist from ever writing about them.

“The Court cautions Plaintiffs that prior restraints on speech are disfavored,” Ungaro wrote in Tuesday's order. “And in the present case, Plaintiffs sought to enjoin more than just libelous or slanderous speech. The default final judgment permanently restrained Defendant from publishing any ‘future communications’ regarding the Plaintiffs ‘in either their professional, personal or political lives’.”

Lamothe and Baker’s amended complaint is due to the court by April 19.