June 23, 2017
Without Notifying Media Organizations, Judge Ordered Dozens of Articles to Be Removed From the Internet
Former Arizona Cardinals Cheerleader Used Legal Maneuverings to Fool Local Judge Into Ordering Legitimate News Stories to Be Taken Offline; Public Citizen Calls for Order to Be Vacated
A court order requiring dozens of news stories to be removed from the Internet – without news organizations’ or journalists’ knowledge – violated the First Amendment and should be vacated, according to a motion Public Citizen filed late Thursday in the Superior Court for Maricopa County in Arizona.
In 2013, then-Arizona Cardinals cheerleader and Iraq war veteran Megan Welter was arrested after calling the police and falsely reporting herself as a victim of domestic violence by her then-boyfriend. When police arrived, they were shown cell phone video refuting Welter’s assertion and instead arrested Welter for domestic violence. Due to Welter’s military notoriety and high-profile sports job, her domestic call made for unflattering online headlines nationwide in local, state and national publications. The stories were written by journalists at some of the largest and most noteworthy news organizations in the country, including the International Business Times, Daily Mail, CBS News, ABC News, Fox News, Pro Football Talk, The Arizona Republic, Business Insider and the New York Post.
In an attempt to erase her negative online history, Welter filed a lawsuit in 2016, nearly three years after many of these articles were published. She alleged the news articles amounted to defamation as well as invasion of her privacy. She sought damages and injunctive relief to remove from the Internet nearly 100 offending stories carried by various defendants, including individuals and news outlets. By failing to name or notify the media organizations of the lawsuit and by getting her former boyfriend’s consent to be a defendant, Welter tricked a local judge into believing that all parties agreed to have the stories taken offline and, failing that, delisted from Google and other search engines. Within six weeks, the judge granted the request. It is unclear how effective the order was.
Representing Avvo, one of the sites subjected to the motion, Public Citizen argues that the entire lawsuit and the means by which it was filed amounted to a procedural farce that violated the First Amendment. Welter should not have been granted injunctive relief to remove stories containing unflattering portrayals of her life. Public Citizen is concerned about an emerging threat to free speech whereby businesses and individuals are taking advantage of defendants and judges by pursuing what amounts to restrictive gag orders to shut down legitimate complaints and news stories.
Maria Crimi Speth of Phoenix’s Jaburg Wilk is local counsel in the case.