NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · CALIFORNIA · Prior Restraints · May 2, 2007
Courts can prohibit repetition of defamatory speech
May 2, 2007 · The California Supreme Court ruled last week that it is constitutional for courts to issue limited injunctions prohibiting defendants from repeating statements that were determined at trial to be defamatory.
The ruling arose from a case where the defendant, Anne Lemen, vocally criticized and protested the noise and activities occurring at a bar, the Balboa Island Village Inn, close to her home.
According to the court’s majority opinion, Lemen told the neighbors that there was child pornography, drug dealing, and prostitution going on in the Village Inn. She also videotaped customers and made derogatory comments to employees.
In October 2001, the Village Inn sued Lemen for nuisance, defamation and interference with business, and sought a court order against Lemen.
The trial court agreed with the Village Inn and granted a permanent injunction prohibiting Lemen from contacting the inn’s employees; from repeating certain defamatory statements, including that the bar “acts as a whorehouse” and “encourages lesbian activities”; and from filming within 25 feet of the Village Inn. The order applied not just to Lemen but also “her agents” and “all persons acting on her behalf.”
The appeals court overturned most of the injunction. While the court upheld the order regarding filming, it overturned the portions prohibiting Lemen from initiating contact with employees of the Village Inn and repeating the identified defamatory statements about the Village Inn.
The appeals court stated that those portions of the judgment violated defendant’s right to free speech under the federal and California constitutions.
The Supreme Court agreed with the appeals court and overturned the injunction. However, the high court’s reasoning in overturning the trial court’s order differed from the appeals court’s reasoning.
The appeals court ruled that such an injunction constitutes an impermissible, unconstitutional prior restraint.
In contrast, the Supreme Court ruled that Lemen’s right to free speech would not be infringed if the injunction was less broad and properly limited.
“An injunction issued following a trial that determined that the defendant defamed the plaintiff that does no more than prohibit the defendant from repeating the defamation, is not a prior restraint and does not offend the First Amendment,” the majority opinion stated.
The high court noted that the injunction the trial court crafted was too broad, ruling that any newly crafted injunction must be limited to Lemen personally and must not prevent Lemen from presenting her grievances to government officials. It also ruled that prohibiting Lemen from contacting The Village Inn’s employees “sweeps more broadly than necessary.”
But the court reasoned that “a properly limited injunction prohibiting defendant from repeating statements about plaintiff that were determined at trial to be defamatory would not violate defendant’s right to free speech.”
Lemen argued that she cannot be enjoined from repeating the same statements found to be defamatory, saying, “A statement that was once false may become true later in time.”
The court countered this argument by saying that if such a change in circumstances occurs, the defendant may move the court to modify or dissolve the injunction.
Several judges dissented or wrote concurring opinions in the 5-2 decision.
Justice Joyce L. Kennard wrote in a dissent that “the injunction is a prior restraint on future speech; it is overbroad in prohibiting nondefamatory future speech; and it is unnecessary in the absence of proof that compensatory damages would not be an adequate remedy.”
(Balboa Island Village Inn v. Lemen) — CS