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Volokh Conspiracy

Asking Ohio S. Ct. to Hear Case Involving Prior Restraint on Mentioning Police Officer's Name


Our excellent pro bono counsel Jeffrey M. Nye (Stagnaro, Saba & Patterson) has just filed our amicus brief in M.R. v. Niesen, on behalf of Profs. Jonathan Entin, David F. Forte, Andrew Geronimo, Raymond Ku, Stephen Lazarus, Kevin Francis O'Neill, Margaret Christine Tarkington, Aaron H. Caplan, the National Writers Union, the Society of Professional Journalists, the NewsGuild-CWA, Euclid Media Group, and me. We're supporting Julie Niesen et al.'s memorandum in support of jurisdiction, and asking the Ohio Supreme Court to consider the question, on which we think the Court of Appeals erred. Here's the heart of our argument:

{The plaintiff, a police officer, sued the defendants, Ohio citizens who criticized his on-duty conduct providing security at a City Council meeting at Cincinnati City Hall. The complaint raised a defamation claim and other similar tort claims. Less than two days after filing the complaint, after a hearing at which the defendant-appellants were present and at which the plaintiff presented no testimony, the court issued an order that "enjoined" the appellants "from publicizing, through social media or other channels, Plaintiff's personal identifying information." The order did not define "personal identifying information," but the only statute that defines the phrase, R.C. 2913.49(A), defines it to include a person's "name."}

Within 48 hours of filing his complaint, [plaintiff] sought and received a sweeping prior restraint: an order forbidding two Ohio citizens from publishing information about a public official arising out the performance of his official duties. That order, like all prior restraints, is presumptively unconstitutional. But when those citizens, Julie Niesen and Terhas White, appealed that order to the First District, the appellate court dismissed the appeal, concluding that there was no final order.

That dismissal was wrong, and there are at least four reasons why this case presents substantial constitutional questions and issues of public or great general interest.

[A.] The order is a prior restraint of the appellants' free-speech rights.

"The term 'prior restraint' is used to describe administrative and judicial orders forbidding certain communications when issued in advance of the time that such communications are to occur." Bey v. Rasawehr, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-3301, ¶25 (some quotation marks omitted). "Temporary restraining orders and permanent injunctions—i.e., court orders that actually forbid speech activities—are classic examples of prior restraints." Id. (quotation marks omitted). "It is inescapable that a regulation of speech 'about' a specific person . . . is a regulation of the content of that speech and must therefore be analyzed as a content-based regulation." Bey at ¶33.

"[B]efore a court may enjoin the future publication of allegedly defamatory statements based on their content, there must first be a judicial determination that the subject statements were in fact defamatory." Bey at ¶44 (citing O'Brien v. Univ. Community Tenants Union, Inc., 42 Ohio St.2d 242, 246, 327 N.E.2d 753 (1975)). Likewise, a court may enjoin speech that falls within some other exception only after "there has been" a "judicial determination that future postings" by the plaintiffs will fit within that exception (in Bey, this was the "speech integral to criminal conduct" exception). Id. at ¶¶45, 47.

The court below forbade Ms. Niesen and Ms. White from mentioning the name of a public official (police officer "M.R.") in any forum or medium, and it thus is a content-based order. This was a decision made by one judge, without the opportunity for a full trial or even comprehensive briefing, less than 48 hours after the complaint was filed, and it thus was not made after judicial determination that the statements were in fact defamatory. Nor is the order limited to forbidding libelous speech, speech that constitutes true threats, or speech that falls into any other First Amendment exception, such as the exception for intentional incitement of imminent and likely criminal conduct, see Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444, 447 (1969). It thus does not satisfy the requirement of falling outside the protection of the First Amendment.

The order prohibits speech that is fully protected by the First Amendment and by Art. I, § 11 of the Ohio Constitution. It has no expiration date. The order is a prior restraint of the appellants' speech. And "Prior restraints on First Amendment expression are presumptively unconstitutional." Bey at ¶60. Cases seeking review of presumptively unconstitutional orders restraining speech are the epitome of cases raising substantial constitutional questions.

[B.] The prior restraint impinges upon the public's rights.

The First Amendment protects not only the rights of speakers, but also the rights of listeners. See Nebraska Press Ass'n v. Stuart, 427 U.S. 539, 609 (1976) (Brennan, J., concurring) ("[I]t is the hypothesis of the First Amendment that injury is inflicted on our society when we stifle the immediacy of speech.") (emphasis added); McCarthy v. Fuller, 810 F.3d 456, 461 (7th Cir. 2015) (anti-libel injunction has "the potential to harm nonparties to the litigation because enjoining speech harms listeners as well as speakers.").

Prior restraints always interfere with the public's constitutional right to listen, but this particular prior restraint also interferes with the public's constitutional right to access—including to listen to accounts of—court proceedings. That right is well-established. See In re T.R. (1990), 52 Ohio St.3d 6, 16 n.9 (adult civil and criminal proceedings are "presumptively open to the public"); State ex rel. The Repository v. Unger (1986), 28 Ohio St. 3d 418, 421 (both pre-trial and trial proceedings are open to the public); Sup.R. 45(A) (case documents are open to the public). This order interferes with that constitutional right because it prohibits the defendants from discussing the plaintiff by name when talking about this litigation.

The public also has a right (and indeed, a duty) to supervise and scrutinize public officials regarding the performance of their official duties. That is true generally, but this Court has said that it is particularly true when the public official is a police officer and when the conduct being discussed is his participation in court proceedings. See Soke v. Plain Dealer (1994), 69 Ohio St.3d 395, 397.

The order in this case thus represents a constitutional quadruple-whammy: by allowing the public official here to surreptitiously use the Ohio courts to immunize himself from such public scrutiny, the order has interfered with the appellants' speech rights generally; interfered with the public's right to listen to speech on matters of public interest; interfered with the public's right and duty to supervise the proceedings of the state court system that dispenses justice in their name; and interfered with the public's right and obligation to supervise public officials' performance of their official duties. The First Amendment does not permit this type of speech restriction.

[C.] The dismissal order elevates state civil procedure rules over the First Amendment and form over substance.

Because of all the foregoing constitutional problems, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that prior restraints must be subject to immediate appellate review. National Socialist Party of America v. Skokie, 432 U.S. 43 (1977). But the Court of Appeals refused to follow this precedent, explaining its decision to disregard the U.S. Supreme Court's command by saying that it viewed the order as just a "temporary restraining order," and not a preliminary injunction.

That refusal raises yet another substantial constitutional issue. Constitutional rights, including the First Amendment precedents requiring immediate appellate review of prior restraints, apply regardless of state-law distinctions between TROs and preliminary injunctions. Holding otherwise would permit state law (or, more precisely, state court rules) to dictate the applicability of federal constitutional law. That would wrongly elevate state-law form over federal substance, turning the Supremacy Clause on its head. See U.S. Const., art. IV, cl. 2 (federal Constitution and laws "shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding"). Federal law controls over state procedure; not the other way around.

Moreover, the First District's reliance on the supposed status of the prior restraint as a TRO was an inaccurate elevation of form over substance. This Court recently (and unanimously) recognized that TROs can be "classic examples of prior restraints." Bey v. Rasawehr, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-3301, ¶25. The immediate appealability of the order therefore does not depend at all on whether the order was a TRO, a preliminary injunction, or anything else.

{And, though it does not matter to the constitutional issue, the appellate court's conclusion that the order was a TRO and not a preliminary injunction is likely incorrect. The order is properly seen as a preliminary injunction because it was not granted ex parte, cf. Civ.R. 65(A) ("A temporary restraining order may be granted without written or oral notice . . . ."), and, as the Court of Appeals observed at ¶10, the duration of the order "extended . . . past the expiration of the period set forth in Civ.R. 65 for a temporary restraining order." See id. (limiting TRO to 14 days plus one like extension for good cause; the order here was journalized in July and apparently was intended by the common pleas court to remain in effect at least until September 1).}

[D.] The dismissal order created a split between appellate districts.

Even if the First District's dismissal order had no constitutional implications, it would warrant review and correction by this Court because it created a district split. The First District below held that the First Amendment offers no right to immediate appellate review of an ostensible temporary restraining order. M.R. v. Niesen, 1st Dist. No. C-200302 at ¶ 1 (Sept. 9, 2020).

But the Second District has held that "Because the right of free speech must be protected against the chilling effect resulting from even its temporary infringement, the United States Supreme Court held in [Nat'l Socialist Party] that: 'If a State seeks to impose a restraint of this kind, it must provide strict procedural safeguards, including immediate appellate review. . . .'" Int'l Diamond Exch. Jewelers, Inc. v. U.S. Diamond & Gold Jewelers, Inc., 70 Ohio App. 3d 667, 671, 591 N.E.2d 881, 884 (2d Dist. 1991) (citations and some internal markup omitted; emphasis in original). And "Given that an immediate appellate forum for review of an order that imposes a prior restraint upon the exercise of free speech is necessitated by the federal Constitution," an appellant need not "wait until the case has been concluded in the trial court before he may challenge the order." Id. See also Connor Group v. Raney, 2d Dist. Montgomery No. 26653, 2016-Ohio-2959, at ¶1 ("Although the issuance of a preliminary injunction by a trial court generally is not viewed as a final appealable order, . . . a preliminary injunction that constitutes a prior restraint on speech requires immediate appellate review.").

The Eleventh District agrees: "[W]here an injunction seeks to 'impose a restraint [on First Amendment rights],' there must be strict procedural safeguards, including immediate appellate review." Puruczky v. Corsi, 11th Dist. Geauga No. 2017-G-0110, 2018-Ohio-1335, ¶15 (paraphrasing Nat'l Socialist Party; some internal markup omitted). "Since Corsi alleges that the injunction substantially impacts his rights and constitutes a prior restraint on his speech, we will proceed to a review of the merits of his appeal." Id.

Unlike the First District's decision below, the holdings of those districts offer no loophole for temporary restraining orders, and those courts exercised their jurisdiction and reviewed (and reversed) the prior restraints. And both Puruczky and Connor Group were libel cases, like this one.

And the Second and Eleventh Districts' approach is correct: As the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized, even temporary restraints on speech can create a chilling effect on the exercise of free speech. See Int'l Diamond, 70 Ohio App. 3d at 671. This Court should also exercise its discretion to review this case and resolve this split of authority on this important constitutional issue that affects fundamental rights. Unless and until it does, the rights of defendants to speak and of the public to listen and supervise their courts and their public officials, will depend on which of the State's appellate districts they reside in….

Proposition of Law no. 1: An order that imposes a prior restraint on speech must be subject to immediate appellate review.

"[I]mmediate appellate review" of prior restraints is constitutionally required. National Socialist Party, 432 U.S. at 44. See also Puruczky; Connor Group; Int'l Diamond, supra.

This principle is fully applicable here. Puruczky and Connor Group involved injunctions entered in response to libel lawsuits, just as this case does. National Socialist Party famously involved Nazis marching in Skokie, Illinois. Nat'l Socialist Party, 432 U.S. at 43–44; see also Collin v. Smith, 578 F.2d 1197, 1199 (7th Cir. 1978). If Nazis who want to march in a neighborhood populated with thousands of Holocaust survivors are entitled to immediate appellate review of an injunction against their speech, then citizens criticizing a police officer must be entitled to the same.

This constitutional requirement flows naturally from courts' recognition of the dangers of prior restraints. "A prior restraint . . . has an immediate and irreversible sanction" that is unlike any other remedy a court may impose, including "a judgment in a defamation case" or even "[a] criminal penalty," because all other sanctions are "subject to the whole panoply of protections afforded by deferring the impact of the judgment until all avenues of appellate review have been exhausted. Only after judgment has become final, correct or otherwise, does the law's sanction become fully operative" for other remedies. Nebraska Press Ass'n v. Stuart, 427 U.S. 539, 559 (1976).

That "panoply of protections" does not exist for a prior restraint, which is why "prior restraints on speech and publication are the most serious and the least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights." Id.Prior restraints "fall on speech with a brutality and finality all their own." Id. at 609 (Brennan, J., concurring in reversal of prior restraint).

More broadly, every day that a prior restraint remains in place is a First Amendment violation, and "[t]he loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury." Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 373 (1976). "'Where . . . a direct prior restraint is imposed upon the reporting of news by the media, each passing day may constitute a separate and cognizable infringement of the First Amendment.'" CBS, Inc. v. Davis, 510 U.S. 1315, 1317 (1994) (Blackmun, J., in chambers) (citation omitted); Lugosch v. Pyramid Co. of Onondaga, 435 F.3d 110, 126 (2d Cir. 2006) (endorsing this principle as requiring "expeditious[]" decisionmaking as to restraints on First Amendment rights, there the right of access to court records); Doe v. Pub. Citizen, 749 F.3d 246, 272–73 (4th Cir. 2014) (same); Grove Fresh Distributors, Inc. v. Everfresh Juice Co., 24 F.3d 893, 897 (7th Cir. 1994) (same), superseded on other grounds, as stated in Bond v. Utreras, 585 F.3d 1061, 1068 n.4 (7th Cir. 2009). And of course this principle applies beyond the mainstream media, and covers social media users as well.

{Art. I, § 11 of the Ohio Constitution "guarantees to '[e]very citizen' the right to publish freely his or her sentiments on all subjects, regardless of that citizen's association or nonassociation with the press." Wampler v. Higgins, 93 Ohio St. 3d 111, 121 (2001). "We have consistently rejected the proposition that the institutional press has any constitutional privilege beyond that of other speakers." Citizens United v. United States, 558 U.S. 310, 352 (2010) (internal quotation marks omitted). "The liberty of the press is not confined to newspapers and periodicals. It necessarily embraces pamphlets and leaflets. . . . The press in its historic connotation comprehends every sort of publication which affords a vehicle of information and opinion." Lovell v. City of Griffin, 303 U.S. 444, 452 (1938); see also Chevaldina v. R.K./FL Mgmt., Inc., 133 So. 3d 1086, 1092 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2014) ("Angry social media postings are now common. . . . But analytically, and legally, these rants are essentially the electronic successors of the pre-blog, solo complainant holding a poster on a public sidewalk," and are just as fully protected by the First Amendment).}

The injury inflicted by prior restraints is thus not remediable by vacatur or reversal of a prior restraint at a distant future date after final judgment, especially where (as here) the prior restraint relates to a public official and his conduct in official and court proceedings. The parties and the public have a right to speak contemporaneously, not merely retrospectively, both about public officials and about court proceedings. See Bridges v. California, 314 U.S. 252, 268 (1941) ("[P]ublic interest is much more likely to be kindled by a controversial event of the day than by a generalization, however penetrating, of the historian or scientist."); Doe v. Pub. Citizen, 749 F.3d 246, 272 (4th Cir. 2014) (acknowledging the harms of "delayed disclosure" with respect to court proceedings). Immediate appellate review is thus critical to make sure that the injunction does not cause such a loss of First Amendment freedoms.

The logic of these cases turns on the commands imposed by the First Amendment—commands that override any contrary state procedural distinctions that would limit immediate appellate review. And of course both this Court and the U.S. Supreme Court have recognized that "Temporary restraining orders," no less than "permanent injunctions," "are classic examples of prior restraints" that are fully subject to First Amendment constraints. Bey v. Rasawehr, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-3301, ¶25; Alexander v. United States, 509 U.S. 544, 550 (1993).

Yet the First District took a sharply different approach; it concluded that neither the U.S. Supreme Court's Skokie decision nor the Second and Eleventh Districts' decisions applied here, simply because this case involved a temporary restraining order. M.R., 1st Dist. No. C-200302 at ¶9. The First District did not acknowledge this Court's or the U.S. Supreme Court's treatment of temporary restraining orders as prior restraints, nor did it explain why the First Amendment rule of immediate appellate review of prior restraints would be limited by the TRO/preliminary injunction distinction.

This Court's review is necessary to set forth a uniform rule on when immediate appellate review of prior restraints is necessary.


Prior restraints on speech are rarely constitutional; and to make sure that unconstitutional prior restraints suppress speech for as short a time as possible, both the U.S. Supreme Court and Ohio courts have required that such restraints be subject to immediate appellate review. The injunction in this case is a prior restraint, and thus subject to immediate appellate review; indeed, it is a content-based prior restraint, and one that is not limited to libelous speech or to speech that falls within a First Amendment exception. This Court should step in to correct the serious First Amendment violation in this case, and resolve the disagreement among the Courts of Appeals on whether the normal First Amendment rules apply to temporary restraining orders.