Monday, August 8, 2011
Court Overturns Injunction Against Online Critic of Law Firm
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
The Fourth District Court of Appeal on Friday ruled than an injunction preventing a San Diego woman from making any mention of the civil law firm of Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz, or its members, on her website was an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech.
Div. One, in an unpublished decision, explained that the injunction was not an appropriate sanction for Maura Larkins’ violation of an earlier injunction which prohibited her from publishing specific statements which had been adjudged false and defamatory.
The Stutz firm, which maintains offices in San Diego, Los Angeles, Temecula, Santa Ana and Las Vegas, filed a complaint against Larkins that contained causes of action for defamation per se, declaratory relief, and injunctive relief in 2008. The complaint alleged that Larkins had created a website, known as the “San Diego Education Report,” on which she had made numerous specific defamatory statements concerning the firm and its attorneys.
San Diego Superior Court Judge Judith F. Hayes subsequently granted the firm’s motion for summary adjudication, finding the complained-of statements to have been defamatory as a matter of law.
The firm and Larkins later reached a settlement on the issue of damages, and pursuant to stipulation of the parties, Hayes entered a permanent injunction that prohibited Larkins from “continuing to publish or republishing by any method or media, including but not limited to all electronic data, Web sites and Web pages, the defamatory statements alleged in [the firm’s] first amended complaint pertaining to [the firm] and any of its lawyers past or present, and future publication of statements with regard to [the firm] and its lawyers accusing illegal conduct or violations of law, unethical conduct, lack of professional competence or intimidation.”
In July 2009, the firm filed a motion to enforce the permanent injunction, contending Larkins continued to display on her website numerous statements that were in violation of the stipulated injunction.
Among the statements on Larkins’ websites that the firm claimed violated the injunction was the accusation that one of its attorneys “specialties is destroying the lives of parents who complain that their kids aren’t getting the right education,” and the assertion that “[a]ttorneys have helped cover up events in schools are in charge of training both new board members and new school attorneys,” in conjunction with the statement that the firm’s attorney “trains board members and employees.”
Larkins objected to the motion, arguing that the stipulated injunction allowed her to “report the facts,” and only prevented her from being “able to opine that that action was illegal, unethical, incompetent or intimidating.” She insisted she needed “clarification” of the scope of the injunction as to “where the limit is.”
Hayes granted the firm’s motion, finding the “disputed statements are in violation of the permanent injunction,” and ordered Larkins to remove the statements from her website.
A few months later, after the firm again complained that Larkins was continuing to publish statements that violated the injunction, Hayes agreed to modify it to provide that Larkins could not make “any mention of [the firm] or any of its attorneys, past or present” on her website due to her “continued circumvention” of the court’s prior orders.
Hayes also found Larkins in contempt and ordered her to pay $3,000 in sanctions.
Writing for the appellate court, Justice Cynthia Aaron reasoned the modified injunction “plainly constitutes a prior restraint” and was “presumptively unconstitutional.”
She noted that “the reason for the trial court’s modification of the injunction—to ensure Larkins’s full compliance with the provision of the injunction prohibiting her from publishing certain negative statements about the Stutz Firm—is a far less compelling interest than those that have been found insufficient to justify a prior restraint” and the record did not indicate that less extreme measures to ensure Larkins’s compliance with the stipulated injunction had been considered.
Aaron added that the “exceedingly broad injunction,” which “precludes Larkins from ever uttering any speech—even legal and truthful speech—about the Stutz Firm,” clearly was not the narrowest means to accomplish the trial court’s objective and therefore the presumption of unconstitutionality was not rebutted.
Justices Judith L. Haller and Alex C. McDonald joined Aaron in her decision.
The case is Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz v. Larkins, D057190
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company