Lawyers have a first amendment right of free speech to publish blog posts about cases they have won, according to a California appeals court ruling in favor of a plaintiff’s lawyer.
A trial court acted unconstitutionally when it forced Los Angeles lawyer Simona Farrise to remove two pages from her law firm website touting her recent successes against Ford in asbestos cases – while she was litigating an asbestos lawsuit against Ford and Volkswagen.
The case is Christie Steiner et al. v. The Superior Court of Santa Barbara County et al., case number B235347, in the Court of Appeal for the State of California, Second Appellate Division.
Unconstitutional prior restraint
The court order was an illegal prior restraint, “the most serious, and the least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights,” the appeals court said. It was sufficient for the trial court to admonish the jurors not to Google the attorneys or to conduct independent research. “We accept that jurors will obey such admonitions,” the appeals court said.
Farrise represented a man who contracted lung cancer and alleged that it was caused by exposure to asbestos. After a jury was empaneled, defendant Volkswagen moved for an order requiring her during the trial to remove a page on her website discussing a $1.6 million verdict against Ford and others, stating that “at least one jury managed to successfully navigate defendants’’ courtroom confusion and find these companies at fault.” A second page described a $4.3 million jury verdict against Ford.
Provocative and prejudicial
Volkswagen argued that the information was provocative and prejudicial and should not be displayed online during the trial because it “will obviously prejudice the jury process during the trial and deliberations in this case, if it is encounter by a juror.” It argued that juror admonishments are no longer effective in today’s world of 24-hour news, Google, Twitter and the Internet.
The trial court granted the motion and Farrise took the two pages down. The judge also admonished the jurors, “During the trial, do not read, listen to, or watch any news reports about this case. … This prohibition extends to the use of the Internet in any way…”
Farrise restored the two pages to her firm website when the trial ended and filed the appeal.
The appeals court sided with her, saying “it must be assumed that a jury does its duty, abides by cautionary instructions, and finds facts only because of those facts are proved.” It added that the trial judge did not have authority to impose, as a prophylactic measure, an order requiring Farrise to remove pages from her website.
And fittingly, if you check her website now, you can see that Farrise even has a blurb about winning this free-speech case.