March 30, 2022:- The Appeals Court has ruled that two District Court judges should not have prohibited a woman from posting anything online about the lawyer she and her husband had hired.
According to the lawyer, the couple had made statements on Facebook “calling us thiefs [sic]” and criticizing the lawyer in emails that cc’d other people. On the strength of this, first one judge (in Leominster District Court) then another (in Worcester District Court) issued a harassment prevention order under G.L. c. 258E. As the name suggests, harassment prevention orders are supposed to prevent harassment, not to prevent criticism. Nevertheless, two separate judges employed the harassment-prevention law to ban constitutionally-protected speech.
The Leominster judge issued the order on June 25, 2021, and the Worcester judge extended it on July 9, 2021 for a period of one year. The orders banned the defendant — the lawyer’s former client — from uttering any statements about the lawyer via “Internet or social media posts.” More than 8 months later, on March 30, 2022, the Appeals Court vacated the gag order. The part of the decision titled Discussion begins with this clear statement:
There is no basis in the record on which a c. 258E order could lawfully have issued.
Then the Appeals Court points out that the lawyer did not claim that the ex-client ever uttered any threats, and that nothing in the lawyer’s complaint described conduct that could qualify as “harassment,” which the statute defines in this way:
(i) 3 or more acts of willful and malicious conduct aimed at a specific person committed with the intent to cause fear, intimidation, abuse or damage to property and that does in fact cause fear, intimidation, abuse or damage to property; or (ii) an act that: (A) by force, threat or duress causes another to involuntarily engage in sexual relations; or (B) constitutes a violation of section 13B, 13F, 13H, 22, 22A, 23, 24, 24B, 26C, 43 or 43A of chapter 265 or section 3 of chapter 272.
To run afoul of the statute, a person needs to engage in three or more acts. Those acts need to be willful and malicious. The person must intend the acts to cause fear, intimidation, abuse or damage to property. And each of the three acts must, in fact, cause fear, intimidation, abuse or damage to property.
The appellate courts have consistently construed this definition so that it does not (or, at least, should not) discourage people, still less prohibit them, from engaging in the sort of robust back-and-forth speech that is essential in a self-governing republic of free people. To put it another way, no appellate court in Massachusetts has ever held that criticism of a lawyer by a disgruntled former client constitutes harassment under chapter 258E, still less that the offending speech warranted a comprehensive year-long ban on the mere utterance of the lawyer’s name online.
On the bright side, the lawyer’s ex-client had the wherewithal to hire another lawyer to file a successful appeal. But it is truly galling that a resident of Massachusetts should have to take a case up to the Appeals Court in order to vindicate her right to speak freely. It is more than galling that a lawyer and two judges (all of whom took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States, which still includes the First Amendment) all considered it OK to quash free speech. After all, even today — in the Trudeau-pian era of ochlocracy, Big Tech/Big Pharma shut-uppery, and the categorization of “misleading narratives that undermine public trust in US government institutions” as terrorism — this area of Massachusetts law is absolutely clear. It has been particularly clear since 2016 when the Supreme Judicial Court explained (because it was, sadly, necessary to explain) that judges really should not ban political candidates from mentioning the names of their opponents at election time. For my post on that decision, click here (quick, before they ban it).
So, three cheers for the Appeals Court justices and no cheers at all for the District Court judges who issued the gag order in the first place.
For the Appeals Court’s decision, click here.