Gag order against non-party in termination proceeding overturned
FLORIDA–In early August, the state Court of Appeal in Miami invalidated a gag order imposed against a non-party in an action to terminate parental rights because it ran “afoul of constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression.”
Circuit Court Judge Richard Payne in Key West imposed the gag order on all parties to and participants in the termination proceedings, including Julie Stanfield, the adult half-sister of the two children at the center of the dispute. Payne said that the gag order was authorized by a state law rendering court documents filed in connection with such proceedings confidential.
However, the appellate court rejected that reasoning, stating that courts cannot prohibit citizens from exercising their First Amendment rights “to publicly discuss knowledge that they have gained independent of court documents, even if the information mirrors the information contained in the documents.”
The appellate court further stated that a statutory provision that makes information obtained by judges, court employees and law enforcement personnel in connection with termination proceedings confidential did not apply to Stanfield.
Payne’s order specifically forbade Stanfield to discuss the case or the identity of the children “with media, or with any other third parties, other than her lawyer.” Payne issued the gag order at a hearing last September, after Stanfield was quoted in a newspaper article discussing the case. Stanfield also disseminated information about the case to members of her church, who then wrote letters to legislators.
The appellate court noted that courts should first consider less intrusive mechanisms than a gag order to limit the public’s access to confidential information. (Stanfield v. Florida Department of Children and Families; Appellant’s Attorney: Jerold Feuer, Miami)