Free Speech, Child Custody, and Insults

Free speech can be an issue in any child custody case when parents hurl insults at each other in front of their children. Because it is not in the children’s best interest, family judges can order parents not to disparage the other parent in front of the children. One Indianapolis court recently had to consider whether an anti-disparagement order went too far.

Free Speech Custody

Start Your Engines

After several years of marriage, Yaima Israel, filed for divorce from her husband Jamie Israel. After the trial, the family court judge decided that joint legal custody was an “unworkable” option based on the parents’ inability to agree about their child’s health, education and welfare. As a result, Yaima was awarded sole legal custody.

The family court’s decree also contained a non-disparagement clause. Family courts sometimes enjoin speech that expressly or implicitly criticizes the other parent.

In another case for example, a mother was stripped of custody partly because she truthfully told her 12-year-old that her ex-husband, who had raised the daughter from birth, wasn’t in fact the girl’s biological father.

In the recent Indianapolis case, the order prohibited either parent from “making disparaging comments about the other in writing or conversation to or in the presence of child.

However, the order also prohibited insulting the other parent in front of friends, family members, doctors, teachers, associated parties, co-workers, employers, the parenting coordinator, media, the press, or anyone else. All kinds of speech was banned, including “negative statements, criticisms, critiques, insults[,] or other defamatory comments.”

The Husband challenged the judge’s non-disparagement clause that restrained them from ever making disparaging remarks about one another, regardless of whether the child was present.

Florida Child Custody and Free Speech

I’ve written about free speech in family cases before. Family courts have a lot of power to protect children. The “best interests of the child” test — the standard applied in all Florida child custody disputes between parents — gives family court judges a lot of discretion to ban speech which can harm children. Accordingly, Florida courts have to balance a parent’s right of free expression against the state’s interest in assuring the well-being of minor children.

In Florida, parents have had their rights to free speech limited or denied for various reasons. In one case, a mother went from primary caregiver to 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. The Mother was also bipolar and convicted of two crimes. The Florida appeals 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.

But some have argued that if parents in intact families have the right to speak to their children without the government restricting their speech, why don’t parents in broken families have the same rights?

The Constitutional Brickyard

The Indianapolis appellate court ruled that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, made applicable to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment, provides that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.

Restraining orders and injunctions that forbid future speech activities, such as non-disparagement orders, are classic examples of prior restraints. Non-disparagement orders are, by definition, a prior restraint on speech. Prior restraints on speech are the most serious and the least tolerable infringement on free speech rights.

While a prior restraint is not per se unconstitutional, it does come to a court bearing a heavy presumption against its constitutional validity.

To determine whether a prior restraint is constitutional under the First Amendment, the court considers: (a) ‘the nature and extent’ of the speech in question, (b) ‘whether other measures would be likely to mitigate the effects of unrestrained’ speech, and (c) ‘how effectively a restraining order would operate to prevent the threatened danger.’”

There is a compelling government interest in protecting children from being exposed to disparagement between their parents. To the extent the non-disparagement clause prohibits both parents from disparaging the other in Child’s presence, the order furthers the compelling State interest in protecting the best interests of Child and does not violate the First Amendment.

But the non-disparagement clause in this case went far beyond furthering that compelling interest because it prohibited the parents from making disparaging comments about the other in the presence of anyone – even when the child was not present.

In the final lap, the court of appeals reversed the portion of the non-disparagement clause including “…friends, family members, doctors, teachers, associated parties, co-workers, employers, the parenting coordinator, media, the press, or anyone” as an unconstitutional prior restraint.

The Indiana court of appeals decision is here.

 

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