A Pennsylvania family court gave a mother sole custody of her 14 and 11-year old daughters, but prohibited her from discussing their Father’s inappropriate statements which he made to the mother’s 17-year old stepdaughter. This post examines if a court in a child custody case can prohibit free speech.

free speech custody

Talking Parents

A Mother and Father were married but separated. The parties lived together with the children from their marriage and with Mother’s daughter from a previous relationship. In January 2017, the Father made statements of a sexual nature to the 17-year old daughter.

The exact substance of Father’s statements are unknown, but the Mother testified that he told her he “had a crush on her,” that he “wanted to date her,” and that he and Mother “hadn’t had sex for so many months.” The father’s statements caused the parties’ separation.

The Mother testified that she told her daughter “some . . . but not all” of Father’s statements to her eldest daughter because the daughter was becoming agitated and withdrawn and “was really needing some answers.”

The Mother requested that the daughter not have any further contact with Father unless it occurs in a “controlled environment. Conversely, she testified the younger daughter remains oblivious to Father’s statements and wants to continue spending time with him.

The Father testified that he had made an effort to cooperate with Mother’s requests and convince her that he does not pose a threat to the Children. He reported that he attended counseling with his pastor for the last fifteen months, but that he would be willing to seek treatment from a new counselor as well.

Florida Free Speech and Child Custody

I’ve written about free speech in family cases before. Family courts have a lot of power to protect children in custody cases. Florida courts have to balance a parent’s right of free expression against the state’s parens patriae interest in assuring the well-being of minor children.

In Florida, a judge prohibited a parent from speaking Spanish to a child in one case. A mother went from primary caregiver to only supervised visits – under the nose of a time-sharing supervisor. The trial judge also allowed her daily telephone calls with her daughter, supervised by the Father.

The Mother was Venezuelan, and because the Father did not speak Spanish, the court ordered: “Under no circumstances shall the Mother speak Spanish to the child.”

The judge was concerned about the Mother’s comments, after the Mother “whisked” the child away from the time-sharing supervisor in an earlier incident and had a “private” conversation with her in a public bathroom. She was also bipolar and convicted of two crimes.

An appellate court reversed the restriction. Ordering a parent not to speak Spanish violates the freedom of speech and right to privacy. Florida law tries to balance the burden placed on the right of free expression essential to the furtherance of the state’s interests in promoting the best interests of children.

In other words, in that balancing act, the best interests of children can be a compelling state interest justifying a restraint of a parent’s right of free speech.

An Erie Case

On October 25, 2018, the family judge in Erie, Pennsylvania ordered that Father would exercise unsupervised partial physical custody of the youngest daughter and that Mother:

“shall not relay, or cause to have relayed, any information to the daughter regarding the facts and circumstances of Father’s inappropriate communications with her half-sister absent Father’s consent or further order of court.”

The Mother argued that the provision in the court’s order prohibiting her from informing her daughter of Father’s statements was improper, because it violated her first Amendment rights, prevented her from protecting the child from abuse, and made her responsible should the sister inform the daughter of Father’s statements.

The Mother asserts that a court may restrict a parent’s speech only when it is causing or will cause harm to a child’s welfare. She maintains that informing her daughter of Father’s statements may actually protect her from future abuse.

The appellate court ruled that the trial court’s determination that it would be in the child’s best interest to prohibit Mother from informing her of Father’s statements was not supported in the record.

While the court found that learning of Father’s statements would be harmful to the child, the court based this conclusion solely on the fact that the older sister does not want to see Father and attends counseling.

The court heard no testimony from the child’s counselor, or from any other individual qualified to give an opinion on if, when, or how, the child should learn of these statements, or what harm she might experience as a result. Therefore, the court’s conclusion in this regard was speculative.

The appellate opinion is here.