RI ACLU Challenges Family Court Order Restricting Free Speech Rights on the Internet

In a case raising important issues of freedom of speech on the Internet, the Rhode Island ACLU has intervened in Family Court on behalf of a Barrington woman who has been barred by the Court from posting on the Internet any details about a pending Family Court custody proceeding in which her brother is involved. In a motion filed with the Court, RI ACLU volunteer attorney H. Jefferson Melish calls the ban a violation of Michelle Langlois’ First Amendment rights. The motion also argues that the Family Court had no jurisdiction to issue the order because the proceeding was filed in Kent County, even though neither party lives in that county.

Ms. Langlois’ brother is involved in a child custody case with his ex-wife. After Ms. Langlois posted information about the case on her Facebook page, the ex-wife filed a “domestic abuse” petition against her, claiming that Ms. Langlois’ postings constituted “harassment.” The ex-wife’s petition sought a court order barring Ms. Langlois from posting any information about the case on the Internet. In late June, Family Court Judge Michael Forte issued such an order. When Langlois contacted the ACLU about the matter, the ACLU agreed to provide her representation to challenge the constitutionality of the Internet restriction.

RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown said today: “The court order issued in this case is a significant intrusion on the First Amendment. Every person has the right to comment on public court proceedings, and the court order that prevents Ms. Langlois from doing so on the Internet is precisely the sort of prior restraint on speech that the First Amendment was designed to protect against. Ms. Langlois should no more be barred from speaking out about this case than should a reporter seeking to post information about it on a newspaper web site. We are hopeful that this troubling order will be dismissed.” Michelle Langlois added: “I do not believe the truth was coming out in Family Court. I was simply using the internet to publicize my brother’s plight.”

A court hearing on the ACLU’s motion to dismiss the petition is scheduled for July 29th at 11 AM in Kent County Family Court.

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