In a very difficult and interesting first amendment case, a family court in Providence has ordered a blogger to stop writing about her own case on custodyscam.blogspot.com. Rev. Anne Grant — who heads the Parenting Project based at the Mathewson Street United Methodist Church in Providence — is challenging Family Court Judge John A. Mutter’s before the state supreme court on first speech grounds.
Grant created the blog to discuss the case, using “Sara Doe” and “Mary Doe” as the names of the children in a case of alleged sexual abuse. In the blog, she attacks the state Department of Children, Youth and Families. She insists that the agency used a “bogus” theory to take the girls away and then send one of them to live with the father, who was accused of sexual abuse.
At DCYF’s request, a Family Court judge ordered the state agency to “advise” the Rev. Anne Grant to stop publishing the blog “as it pertains” to the two children. While the blog used fake names for the girls, DCYF said the blog included the children’s photographs, diary entries and medical information, and the site repeated the sexual abuse claim that a DCYF hearing officer had deemed “unfounded.”
Mutter’s order does appear a bit broad, even when one considers the exception given to limitations needed to protect children: “DCYF, as temporary custodian of the children, is to advise Anne Grant, author of http://www.custodyscam.blogspot.com, to remove any and all written and pictorial information pertaining to the children in the above matter, from the inception of publication to the present and henceforth, and to cease publication of the blog as it pertains to these children. That mother and father are ordered to facilitate cooperation in this process.” This would prevent Grant from discussing any aspect of the case; protecting the court itself from public criticism.
The case involves the controversial parental alienation syndrome, a theory was developed by child psychologist Richard A. Gardner “to describe his clinical impressions of cases he believed involved false allegations of child abuse.”While Grant did not use their names, other identifying information and pictures of the children appear on the site, such as a picture of the 3-year-old girl was surrounded by toys in the bathtub to show that “there was absolutely nothing prurient about that photo.”
Initially, reports seemed to suggest that Rev. Grant was one of the parents. I heard from her, however, and she notes that she is merely trying to draw attention to an abusive judicial ruling. The effort to restrict third parties creates a classic conflict between court seals and public speech. Interestingly, courts are trying to control even non-parties discussing cases in the media, a troubling trend. While the court would be on stronger grounds to restrict a parent or at least punish a parent for exposing children to such public attention, it is far more troubling if the blogger is an non-party. The Court can seal the case and restrict parties. However, limited the media and bloggers assumes sweeping authority. Newspapers, of course, have adopted policies like not naming victims of rape and child abuse. However, despite some legislation in the area, this is a voluntary policy and an attempt to order such restraint would be highly suspect on a constitutional basis.
Moreover, as noted here, courts have been more aggressive in dealing with critics, including bloggers.
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