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Iowa District Court Ruling Barring Criticisms of Union’s Law Firm is Overly Broad, Severely Curtails Free Speech Rights

Dec. 22, 2003

Iowa District Court Ruling Barring Criticisms of Union’s Law Firm is Overly Broad, Severely Curtails Free Speech Rights


Public Citizen Asks State Supreme Court to Hear Appeal of Temporary Injunction

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A temporary injunction barring a Web site operator from referring to a union’s legal representation places an unconstitutional restraint on the operator’s free speech rights, Public Citizen said in a brief filed today with the Supreme Court of Iowa. The brief asks the Court to hear an appeal on the injunction.

On November 21, the Iowa District Court for Clinton County barred Robert E. Swanson of DeWitt, Iowa from posting any reference to the Paul McAndrew Law firm of Coralville, Iowa on his Web site, www.seajustice.org. Swanson created the site to air his criticisms about the leadership of the Seafarers International Union (SIU), of which he was previously a member, resulting in the Union filing a defamation suit against Swanson. The SIU had also asked the court to bar Swanson from posting any references to the union and its leadership. However, after finding that the SIU is unlikely to succeed in its defamation case against Swanson, the district court denied that portion of the injunction.

According to Public Citizen’s brief, the court’s ruling barring references to the law firm imposes a broad and unjustified prior restraint on Swanson’s protected speech. Furthermore, the injunction was issued on behalf of a non-party to the lawsuit. The importance of the First Amendment rights at issue, both to Swanson and society, and the potential impact of the injunction on the final outcome of the lawsuit should give the Supreme Court ample reason to hear an appeal immediately, Public Citizen argued.

“The SIU and the Paul McAndrew Law Firm could not show any justification for such a harsh restraint on speech,” said Charlotte Garden, an attorney with the Public Citizen Litigation Group. “Furthermore, this ruling is so broad that Swanson can’t even praise the firm, or refer to it neutrally to explain the events of his case.”

The ruling was also flawed because the court failed to apply the correct legal standards to its evaluation of the merits of the underlying case. Because the case arose from a labor dispute, the Union should have been required to show that the statements at issue were made with actual malice and caused actual damage, neither of which were even alleged in the Union’s complaint. Furthermore, the references Swanson made to the McAndrew firm on his site constitute opinion, conjecture, and statements of Swanson’s intentions. Such statements cannot constitute defamation.

Public Citizen became involved in the case because it has a history of defending free speech on the Internet. Click here to read the brief on the Web.