Articles Posted in First Amendment

A recent federal court decision serves as a reminder of the extremely high burden a litigant has in order to close court proceedings from the public.  In our judicial system, the doors of the courthouse open in assuring the public’s right to access to the judicial process. This federal court decision is being considered by many as a victory for the public’s freedom to access judicial information.

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In the federal case, Silvka v. YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region, a Colorado District Court struck down the defendant employer’s motion for a gag order and a motion to restrict. In the opinion, Chief Judge Brimmer’s provided a thorough explanation and insight into the public’s right to have access to judicial proceedings. The order also reflected the core principle’s espoused in Professor Eugene Volokh’s objection to the motions raised by the YMCA; that the First Amendment and the common law assert a public right to access court proceedings whether civil or criminal in nature. 

The motion for a gag order came as a result of Silvka’s complaint against the YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region. The complaint alleged that a YMCA manager sexually harassed and forcibly groped the former employee and that the YMCA failed to conduct a proper investigation into her complaints.  The allegations of the sexual harassment lawsuit include a hostile work environment that involved employees binge drinking, and male upper level personnel abusing their power by coercing young female employees to have sex with them in order to advance in the organization. Silvka claimed to be the latest victim of this culture in her complaint. In response to the complaint and its publication by local news outlets in Colorado, the YMCA sought to impose a gag order fearing the complaint’s publication would prejudice a jury against them. 

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals issued a defeat to President Donald Trump and more importantly a victory for First Amendment Rights in July, finding that the President could not block individuals on the social media platform Twitter. In the matter, Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University v. Trump, — F.3d –, 2019 WL 2932440 (2d Cir. July 9, 2019), the Second Circuit upheld the Southern District of New York’s ruling that the President’s Twitter account was effectively a public forum.  Based on this finding, the Court held that President Trump could not restrict certain individuals’ access to his Twitter account because to do so would constitute “viewpoint discrimination” in violation of the First Amendment.

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In his opinion, Circuit Judge Barrington Parker highlighted that though the account was made in 2009, before President Trump was elected, the account has become at least temporarily a government-controlled account and qualifies as a public forum. The opinion noted that the account had been used for governmental purposes in the past. This was made evident when the account was used to announce meetings with foreign leaders, or when it was used to announce the nominations of high-ranking officials, like Christopher Wray as the new Director of the FBI. Because the account was used in an “official capacity” to make announcements regarding governmental activity, the Second Circuit found that the President was likewise acting “in the same capacity when he blocks those who disagree with him.”

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HOLMDEL, NEW JERSEY (MAY 9, 2019)–The high school teacher who was blamed for a yearbook censorship controversy in Wall Township in 2017 filed a motion in the Superior Court in Monmouth County on Thursday, seeking immediate relief from a Board of Education (BOE) policy that has blocked her from being able to tell her full story to the media.

In her original lawsuit filed on May 6, 2019, Susan Parsons alleged she was framed by members of the school administration as the person responsible for digitally altering a student’s 2017 yearbook photo to remove a “Trump: Make America Great Again” logo from his shirt, a narrative she was unable to refute due to an ongoing BOE media gag order.

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Susan Parsons seeks relief from restrictions on her ability to speak to media

HOLMDEL, NEW JERSEY (MAY 6, 2019)–Wall Township former yearbook advisor and teacher Susan Parsons, who was thrown into the center of a high profile high school yearbook controversy in 2017, filed a civil rights lawsuit in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Monmouth County on Monday against the Wall Township Board of Education (BOE) as well as Wall Township High School Superintendent Cheryl Dyer, seeking redress for violations of her First Amendment right to free speech.

New Jersey’s State Policy Prohibiting Discrimination in the Workplace is considered amongst many New Jersey employment lawyers as being one of the least protective of employee rights in the entire country.  Unfortunately, the newest revisions proposed by the Civil Service Commission do not provide any meaningful improvement for State employees governed under the State’s anti-harassment policy, and particularly with respect to how it conducts investigations of claims of sexual harassment.  In fact, when it comes to New Jersey’s controversial “strict confidentiality directive” policy, the proposed changes make the New Jersey’s anti-harassment policy even worse for victims of sexual harassment and discrimination.

Much has been written over the past week regarding the Civil Service Commission’s attempts to strengthen the strict confidentiality directive.  While the Civil Service Commission’s proposed revisions could worsen the penalties for breach, the current version of the strict confidentiality directive in effect continues to require incidents of sexual harassment from the public. What many of the news reports seem to have missed is the devastating impact of the current strict confidentiality policy has and continues to have on silencing victims of sexual harassment.

The current strict confidentiality directive in place expressly threatens state employees with discipline up to and including termination if the state employee exercises his or her constitutionally protected right to speak out about allegations of harassment within the state workplace. A state employee who makes a complaint of harassment or discrimination, or is requested to participate in a discrimination or harassment investigation, is required under current state regulations and practice to keep all aspects of the investigation confidential.  This means, for example, that if a state employee is the victim of sexual assault or harassment at her state job and she complains about it to the State’s EEO/AA office, she is forbidden under current regulations and practice to tell a lawyer, a co-worker or even her spouse anything about what happened.  The strict confidential directive remains in place and every state employee must abide by it or be subject to discipline.  N.J.A.C. 4A:7-3.1(j), states: