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The First Amendment and the Specific Preliminary Injunction

I'm continuing to serialize my forthcoming Penn Law Review article on Anti-Libel Injunctions.


[You might also read my earlier post on the subject, Anti-Libel Injunctions and the Criminal Libel Connection, The First Amendment and Criminal Libel Law, and The First Amendment and the Catchall Permanent Injunction; or you can read the whole article in PDF.]

Let's now shift from an anti-libel injunction that I argue is constitutionally permissible (even if perhaps unsound in other ways)—the catchall injunction—to one that is broadly understood to be unconstitutional: the specific preliminary injunction. Paula sues Don for libel, arguing that Don lied when he said that Paula had cheated him in business. She gets a preliminary injunction, just weeks after filing, or even a temporary restraining order (whether or not ex parte) just days after filing. That injunction says, "Don shall not accuse Paula of cheating him," and lasts until trial (which could be years or at least many months in the future). It is specific rather than catchall because it bans only the repetition of a specific allegation or set of allegations (here, of cheating).

Such specific preliminary injunctions have been sharply condemned by most appellate courts that have seriously considered them—even by courts that authorize specific permanent injunctions—because those injunctions suppress speech without a finding on the merits that the speech is unprotected. In the words of the California Supreme Court in Balboa Village Island Inn, Inc. v. Lemen, the most influential recent decision allowing permanent injunctions against libel,

In determining whether an injunction restraining defamation may be issued, … it is crucial to distinguish requests for preventive relief prior to trial and post-trial remedies to prevent repetition of statements judicially determined to be defamatory…. "… The attempt to enjoin the initial distribution of a defamatory matter meets several barriers, the most impervious being the constitutional prohibitions against prior restraints on free speech and press …. In contrast, an injunction against continued distribution of a publication which a jury has determined to be defamatory may be more readily granted…."

Likewise, when the Kentucky Supreme Court authorized permanent injunctions against libel, it expressly rejected preliminary injunctions:

[T]he speech alleged to be false and defamatory by the Respondents has not been finally adjudicated to be, in fact, false. Only upon such a determination could the speech be ascertained to be constitutionally unprotected, and therefore subject to injunction against future repetition. We are mindful that the rule announced herein delays the availability of injunctive relief during the time it takes to litigate the issue. Thus, while the rule may temporarily delay relief for those ultimately found to be innocent victims of slander and libel, it prevents the unwarranted suppression of speech of those who are ultimately shown to have committed no defamation, and thereby protects important constitutional values.

The Nebraska Supreme Court took the same view:

A jury has yet to determine whether Sullivan's allegations about Dillon and his business practices are false or misleading representations of fact. For these reasons, we conclude that the temporary restraining order, as well as the permanent injunction restraining Sullivan's speech, constitute unconstitutional prior restraints in derogation of Sullivan's right to speak.

Or in the words of the Alaska Supreme Court, "Preliminary injunctions are almost always held to be unconstitutional burdens on speech because they involve restraints on speech before the speech has been fully adjudged to not be constitutionally protected." And while the court went on to say that, "A preliminary injunction barring speech may be permissible only if the trial court has fully adjudicated and determined that the affected speech is not constitutionally protected," the injunction that it was authorizing this way isn't really so preliminary.[1] The few cases that have upheld preliminary injunctions against libel have not squarely responded to this criticism.[2]

More generally, the Supreme Court likewise held in Vance v. Universal Amusements, Inc.[3] that alleged obscenity cannot be enjoined simply based on a pretrial showing that the speech was likely to be obscene—at least absent the procedural protections offered by Freedman v. Maryland—even though it could be enjoined after a finding of obscenity on the merits. Likewise, in Pittsburgh Press Co. v. Pittsburgh Comm'n on Human Relations, the Court upheld an injunction against an illegal advertisement only "because no interim relief was granted," so that "the order will not have gone into effect before our final determination that the actions of Pittsburgh Press were unprotected."

The problem with the specific preliminary injunction, then, is that it doesn't just lead to punishment of speech that a jury has found libelous beyond a reasonable doubt (or even by a preponderance of the evidence). It leads to punishment of speech that a judge has found will likely be shown to be libelous, and this finding may have been based on a highly abbreviated (and sometimes even ex parte) adjudicative process.


[1] See also Mishler v. MAC Systems, Inc., 771 N.E.2d 92, 98–99 (Ind. Ct. App. 2000) (condemning a preliminary injunction issued "after only the most preliminary of determinations by the trial court"); St. Margaret Mercy Healthcare Centers, Inc. v. Ho, 663 N.E.2d 1220, 1223–24 (Ind. Ct. App. 1996) (dissolving a preliminary injunction on First Amendment grounds, because speech cannot be restricted "before an adequate determination that it is unprotected by the First Amendment"); Hartman v. PIP-Group, LLC, __ S.E.2d __ (Ga. Ct. App. 2019) ("We have found no Georgia case upholding an interlocutory injunction prohibiting speech. Our Supreme Court has noted that although 'it has never been held that all injunctions against publication are impermissible,' such an injunction has been upheld only when it 'was entered subsequent to a verdict in which a jury found that statements made by [the defendant] were false and defamatory.'"); Anagnost v. Mortgage Specialists, Inc., 2016 WL 10920366, *3 (N.H. Super. Ct.) ("[B]y asking for a preliminary injunction, the plaintiffs seek to enjoin Gill from making statements that have not yet been found to be unprotected."); Paradise Hills Assocs. v. Procel, 1 Cal. Rptr. 2d 514, 519 (Cal. Ct. App. 1991) ("A preliminary injunction is a prior restraint."); Cohen v. Advanced Med. Group, 496 S.E.2d 710, 710-11 (Ga. 1998) (overturning a preliminary injunction against libel on the grounds that the injunction was not "'entered subsequent to a verdict in which a jury found that statements made by [defendant] were false and defamatory'" (quoting High Country Fashions, Inc. v. Marlenne Fashions, Inc., 357 S.E.2d 576, 577 (Ga. 1987))); Auburn Police Union v. Carpenter, 8 F.3d 886, 903 (1st Cir. 1993) (stressing that an injunction of charitable solicitation was permitted only "after a final adjudication on the merits that the speech is unprotected").

[2] But see Gillespie v. Council, 2016 WL 5616589, *3 (Nev. Ct. App. Sept. 27) (reluctantly allowing preliminary injunction in libel case, because a 1974 Nevada Supreme Court had allowed such injunctions); San Antonio Community Hosp. v. Southern Cal. Dist. Council of Carpenters, 125 F.3d 1230, 1233–39 (9th Cir. 1997) (concluding that a preliminary injunction in a labor union libel case was not a prior restraint because the statements were so misleading as to be fraudulent, and "[t]he First Amendment does not protect fraud"); Bingham v. Struve, 591 N.Y.S.2d 156, 158-59 (Sup. Ct. App. Div. 1992) (ordering a preliminary injunction against a libel on a matter of private concern, concluding that the libel was constitutionally unprotected but not considering the prior restraint problem); Parland v. Millennium Const. Servs., LLC, 623 S.E.2d 670, 673 (Ga. Ct. App. 2005) (allowing a preliminary injunction so long as there is a showing of irreparable harm); Barlow v. Sipes, 744 N.E.2d 1, 10 (Ind. Ct. App. 2001) (allowing preliminary injunction as to speech on matters of "primarily private concern").

[3] 445 U.S. 308 (1980); see also Blount v. Rizzi, 400 U.S. 410, 420 (1971) (holding that a determination by a judge of "probable cause" that speech is obscene is insufficient to justify a restriction); FW/PBS, Inc. v. City of Dallas, 493 U.S. 215, 240 (1990) (reaffirming this principle as to "prior restraint[s] in advance of a final judicial determination on the merits"); State v. Book-Cellar, Inc., 679 P.2d 548, 553-55 (Ariz. Ct. App. 1984) (upholding a statute that authorized preliminary injunctions against the distribution of obscenity by requiring "that a final judicial determination [be] made by the end of 60 days from the issuance of a preliminary injunction," a safeguard compelled by Freedman v. Maryland, 380 U.S. 51 (1965)); City of Cadillac v. Cadillac News & Video, Inc., 562 N.W.2d 267, 270 (Mich. Ct. App. 1996) (overturning down a preliminary injunction of obscenity on the grounds that the injunction would permit "removal of allegedly obscene materials from circulation before a judicial determination whether the material is obscene, with none of the safeguards" established in Freedman v. Maryland, 380 U.S. 51, 59 (1965)).