Civil Liberties

In the Justina Pelletier Case, Government Once Again Muzzles the Opposition


Foter / CC BY-SA

I don't pretend to fully understand the medical controversy at the core of the dispute over Justina Pelletier. It troubles me, though, that the state of Massachusetts decided to resolve a difference of opinion between physicians at Tufts Medical Center and Boston Children's Hospital by taking a teenage girl away from her parents and treating their adherence to the Tufts diagnosis as child abuse. Just as troubling, is that the judge in the case slapped a gag order on the parents in an effort to prevent them from voicing their displeasure with official conduct. Once again, American apparatchiks display their discomfort with public criticism and debate.

We've seen this before with gag orders issued to recipients of national security letters, forbidding them from publicly challenging or complaining about government snooping. Even many judges find those gag orders constitutionally questionable. They're convenient, though, for government officials who like to go about controversial business with a minimum of muss, fuss, and challenge.

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Matt Zimmerman pointed out with regard to gag orders issued in conjunction with national security letters, "Any statutory structure that grants the executive branch such power and couples that power with the ability to hide its behavior from scrutiny is ripe for abuse."

Grabbing children from their parents is a draconian act that is also "ripe for abuse." It might be done in a punitive, abusive, mistaken, or arbitrary fashion. It's certainly open to question and criticism when it appears to have been done as a matter of picking sides in a legitimate difference of opinion between reputable medical experts.

Why shouldn't parents be as free to challenge the forcible removal of a child from their care as a company or individual is to challenge the siphoning of sensitive information by inquisitive officials?

Yet the Boston Globe reported yesterday:

One issue before the judge in today's hearing was whether Lou Pelletier should be held in contempt of court for violating a gag order. The teen's father has recently given media interviews in which he expressed frustration with the quality of care his daughter is getting while in DCF custody, care that he has asserted has been nearly fatal for her.

Held in contempt for publicizing his fears that the state is killing his kid? How…inconsiderate of the judge's feelings.

There may be times when a gag order is appropriate, but the only one coming to mind right now is an order that would prevent government officials from telling members of the public to shut up.